The Whistler Mountain Bike Park was recently in the news after researchers compiled injury statistics from the Whistler Health Care Centre between May 16 and October 12, 2009, and concluded, "these findings demonstrate serious risks associated with this sport and highlight the need for continued research into appropriate safety equipment and risk avoidance."
But that wasn't the only study of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park that was underway at the time. Jamie Burr, a PhD research scientist at UBC — now at the University of PEI — conducted a study of riders in September 2011 to determine what the health benefits, if any, may be for people who use the downhill park. Using equipment to test heart rate, blood pressure, physical exertion and oxygen consumption, Burr determined that downhill mountain biking is a legitimate excercise activity that meets the demands of the American College of Sports Medicine and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology for physical exertion.
Burr focused entirely on physical exertion rather than safety, and expects that his findings will be somewhat controversial.
"It just came out this morning (Tuesday), so I haven't really got any feedback yet, but when you're in a publication like the Journal of Sports Sciences you know you'll get a push back of people saying 'how can it be a healthy activity if people get hurt doing it,' which is the same kind of reaction you get with any action sport," he said.
Burr likens downhill mountain biking to consuming alcohol. "Research shows that moderate alcohol consumption can do some positive things for your health, but we also know that there are risks to drinking," he said. "But the risks are minor when you do it in the safest manner possible."
For his study, Burr recruited 19 test subjects — 11 men and eight women — and did some baseline testing of his test subjects before asking them to do a continuous, non-stop run down a trail or system of trails within their ability level. He measured heart rate, blood pressure, RPE (perceived exertion), grip strength and oxygen consumption. He also tried to account for experience, trail choice and how fast athletes were to determine if the benefits could be different for riders.
Overall, he found that even moderate riding had direct health benefits while one female rider in particular pushed it so hard she was outside of Burr's expected range.
"I did work in the past with motocross-style dirt biking, and the results (from the mountain bike study) are actually pretty similar," said Burr. "What we found is that downhill mountain biking qualifies as a moderate to rigorous activity for most people."
Of course, a lot depends on how people ride — if they stop a lot while descending then they will get less of a benefit. As well, the number of runs you do in an average day would qualify as meeting daily expectations for fitness, but Burr said that most riders are probably not in the park every day.