Over the last few decades, mountain biking has remained a popular outdoor recreational activity. According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, nearly 40 million people mountain bike every year in the U.S.
As public health concerns including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are on the rise, physical exercise, especially in the outdoors, is becoming more critical to our health as individuals and as a society.
Mountain biking is a fun and exciting way to enjoy the many health benefits of regular fitness and cardiovascular exercise including:
1) Improved Heart Health
Regular exercise is known to improve cardiovascular fitness. The British Medical Association studied 10,000 people and showed that riding a bicycle for at least 20 miles a week lessened the risk of coronary heart disease by almost 50%. Mountain biking uses large muscle groups that require a lot of oxygen. This makes the heart work steadily, increasing your heart’s fitness by 3-7%.
2) Less Stress on the Joints
Mountain biking is a low impact sport, meaning it puts less stress on your joints than other aerobic activities such as running. Cycling is also considered a non-load bearing sport, which means that the act of sitting takes pressure off of your joints and reduces the risk of injuring them.
3) Decreased Risk of Diseases
Regular moderate exercise is known to strengthen your immune system and keep you healthy. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that people who cycle for 30 minutes, 5 days a week take half as many sick days off work compared to their sedentary counterparts! Another study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology reported that women who exercised regularly, including cycling to work, reduced their incidence of breast cancer.
4) Reduced Stress and Improved Mood
The vigorous demands of mountain biking stimulate your body to release natural endorphins, which are the body’s way of feeling good and getting more energy. Exercise also boosts serotonin, an important neurotransmitter in the brain which helps to prevent depression and anxiety. The focus and attention needed to ride a challenging single-track can become a form of moving meditation; ultimately helping to relax and weather life’s stressors by acting as a distraction from negative thoughts that may contribute to anxiety and depression. Gaining new skills and improving your mountain biking abilities also helps to build confidence and self-esteem.
5) Increased Brain Power
Researchers at Illinois University found that a 5% improvement in cardio-respiratory fitness from cycling led to an improvement of up to 15% on mental tests. This is in part due to building brain cells in the hippocampus – the region of the brain responsible for memory. “It boosts blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which fires and regenerates receptors, explaining how exercise helps ward off Alzheimer’s,” Professor Arthur Kramer said.
Creative professionals and executives often use their sharpened brain function during exercise time to come up with ideas and solve problems.
6) Improved balance and coordination
Unlike plodding on a treadmill or stair stepper, mountain biking is a dynamic activity that requires the rider to constantly adjust to varying terrain, pitch, and elevation. Staying steady and secure on a mountain bike not only keeps you from crashing, but strengthens neural pathways and reinforces muscle memory. Balance and coordination requires the combined resources of the brain, senses, muscles and nervous system. Keeping these systems active as we get older staves off disability from aging and reduces the risk of injury from falls.
7) Whole Body Workout
It’s no doubt you’ll recognize the defined calf muscles of an avid cyclist, but you may not realize that mountain biking uses the muscles of your whole body. Of course, cycling builds strong legs, thighs and calves and helps you get that nice tight butt. The balance required to stay upright strengthens your abdominal and core muscles. Climbing and maneuvering turns also strengthens your upper body. And as an added bonus, mountain biking doesn’t require an expensive gym membership or a personal trainer to get a good workout.
8) Sleep Better
You may immediately feel tired and worn out after a ride, but it will ultimately lead to improved regenerative sleep when you need it at night. The exercise of riding decreases cortisol, a hormone that keeps us awake. Being an outdoor activity, mountain biking exposes you to daylight which helps to maintain the body’s natural circadian sleep/wake cycle, not to mention raising your body’s production of vitamin D. Make sure you avoid vigorous rides too late in the day, which can have the opposite effect of releasing stimulating endorphins that can keep you awake.
9) Social Benefits
The newer field of happiness psychology has shown that healthy relationships and social interactions are key to being happy and finding meaning in life. Mountain biking is often a social activity shared by clubs and groups who get out to ride together. It provides a perfect opportunity to build personal bonds and make new friends with people who enjoy the same activities that you do.
10) Enjoy Nature
What better way to experience the great outdoors than to eat some dust and get intimate with thorny bushes on the trail? Seriously though, mountain biking, more than any other activity, allows you to quickly get off the beaten path and enjoy the solitude and majesty of nature. Japanese researchers have shown that being out in nature (what they refer to as “forest bathing”) improves relaxation and reduces stress. A busy urban environment has exactly the opposite effects of stimulating the fear and anxiety centers in the brain. Spend more time on your bike and you may also become more likely to be more green and friendly to the environment.
So instead of turning on the football game and reaching for a beer, (in the immortal words of Freddy Mercury) “Get on your bikes and ride.” There’s no better way I can think of to improve your overall physical, mental, and emotional health.