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.
"My feeling is that unless you're a bike bum in Whistler and you can do this every day, then most people (who downhill) are not meeting their (fitness) demands that way," said Burr. "But as part of an overall program for health, it works."
Another caveat to the health benefits of downhilling is the fact that it's not a full body workout. "Yes, riders are working hard, but there are certain parts of fitness that they are not working on," he said. "You use certain muscles more than others, the flexibility is not there. It's very different than something like jogging.
"Should it be the only thing that somebody does? Probably not. But the evidence is that if you do it safely and don't get injured, then you can use it as part of a program."
As for the question of whether the benefits outweigh the risks, or vice versa, Burr said that's a difficult question. "We could probably put a dollar value on it, the cost of injuries versus how much you avoid chronic disease by being active," he said. "And what do chronic diseases cost, and what does it cost the health care system to treat these injuries. Some say in downhill mountain biking it's not a question of if you'll crash, it's a question of when you crash. It's going to happen.
"But you also have to look at things like quality of life — are people's lives better because they participate in these things? I think most people in the sport would say yes. And if they aren't downhill mountain biking, are they going to seek out something else that's equally invigorating to them? I think the answer for a lot of people would also be yes."
Looking at the lift lines at the Whistler Mountain Bike Park, Burr said you'd notice that most of the people in line are relatively fit. However, he said it's likely that people that are fit already would be attracted to the sport, versus "couch potatoes" that might see the sport and decide that the risk is too high.
One thing that Burr likes about mountain biking in general is the progression. In other activities you can plateau more easily and get less health benefits, while in mountain biking you can always ride harder and longer trails, change up styles and more. "As you get better you can still challenge yourself to advance to the next level, so it's neat that there's this built-in progression to it," he said.
Burr's study is called "Physiological demands of downhill mountain biking," and also credits C. Taylor Drury, Adam C. Ivey and Darren E.R. Warburton for their contributions, as well as the Kinesiology, Cardiovascular Physiology and Rehabilitation Laboratory at UBC and the department of Experimental Medicine at UBC. It is published in the Oct. 2, 2012 edition of the Journal of Sports Sciences.
Burr said he has no immediate plans for a follow-up study, but he would like to test a group of World Cup-level downhill athletes to measure their exertion and compare those findings to other elite sports. "I think you'd find that they're pushing themselves a lot harder because there's a lot more on the line," said Burr. "I don't know how feasible it is and the equipment is too expensive to strap onto the back of those guys, so we don't have any direct plans right now."