Most people will agree maintaining good physical and mental health is essential for a long and happy life. However, traditional forms of exercise like jogging, swimming, or weight training might not be appealing or available to everyone.
That is probably why alternative forms of exercise, like ATV riding, are becoming increasingly popular. But does a recreational trail ride offer the same benefits as a session on the treadmill?
Several studies indicate that ATV riding is an effective alternative form of exercise that offers physical health benefits like preventing obesity, gaining muscle strength, and improving endurance.
In addition, ATV riding can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and help with depression.
This is good news for people like me who dread putting on my running shoes but don’t mind riding my ATV all day.
However, factors such as type of vehicle, ride intensity, terrain type, and how often you ride can significantly impact the effectiveness of the training and the physical benefits.
Let us look at how ATV riding can benefit our health and what you must consider before canceling your gym membership.
Science Agrees: ATV Riding Is Good for Your Health
For non-riders, it can be hard to believe that operating a motorized vehicle can be considered exercise. After all, you’re just sitting on your butt all day, right?
I believe it’s safe to say that anyone who thinks riding an ATV off-road is like riding a car down the highway will be in for a big surprise.
As someone who has been riding ATVs, snowmobiles, and motorcycles for almost three decades, I don’t need a scientist to tell me off-road riding can be good exercise. Few things get my blood pumping, like an intense off-road riding session.
Out of curiosity, I decided to read through what the available literature says on the topic. It’s always good to have theories tested, verified, or debunked through science, but the findings will likely not surprise experienced riders.
As this study from 2010 concludes:
“On the basis of the measured metabolic demands, evidence of muscular strength requirements, and the associated caloric expenditures with off-road vehicle riding, this alternative form of activity conforms to the recommended physical activity guidelines and can be effective for achieving beneficial changes in health and fitness.”
A later study performed by several of the same scientists writes:
“Consistent participation in off-road riding is an effective mode of alternative physical activity for decreasing adiposity, increasing muscle mass, and improving endurance in the lower body. Off-road riding is effective for lowering blood pressure and may be a useful physical activity modality to improve metabolic regulation.”
In other words, the overall consensus amongst scientists is that ATV riding is good for your physical and mental health.
A third study found that off-road riders’ mental and physical function scores were significantly higher than Canadian norms.
However, ATV riders’ aerobic fitness was only on par or slightly lower with the non-riding part of the population, while the motocross riders displayed scores well above average.
Does that mean ATV riding brings you more out of shape? Well, not exactly.
Without stepping on anyone’s toes, it only tells us that the average Canadian ATV rider is in slightly worse physical shape than the average non-riding Canadian.
If it weren’t for the physical benefits of ATV riding, the same people would likely end up with a result more towards the negative side of the scale.
To support this, the studies highlight the “importance of alternative physical activity such as off-road riding to promote physical activity in a group who might otherwise forego exercise altogether”.
ATV Riding Burns Calories
The studies found that the aerobic demands (cardio) of recreational off-road riding were comparable to activities like golf (without a caddy), rock climbing, and alpine skiing but lower than those of competitive mountain biking, basketball, and cycling.
The aerobic work of recreational ATV trail riding was found to be slightly less taxing than walking, while recreational dirt bike trail riding was harder than walking but not as hard as jogging.
One hour of recreational ATV trail riding burns 218 kcal on average. This might not sound like much compared to more intensive sports, but you also need to consider the average duration of a typical session.
Whether you burn 1000 calories over 3 hours or 1000 in one hour, the total calories burnt are the same.
To give you an idea of how effective ATV riding is at burning calories, it helps to compare a typical ATV ride or 180 minutes with the typical duration of other activities.
- Three hours of recreational ATV trail riding typically burns 654 kcal.
- Two hours of recreational dirt-bike trail riding typically burns 872 kcal.
- One hour of competitive motocross racing or quad racing burns up to 657kcal.
- One hour of elite competition-level mountain bike riding typically burns 1105 kcal.
ATV Riding Builds Muscle Strength and Endurance
Operating an ATV is considered an active form of riding where safe and effective vehicle operation requires high rider-vehicle interaction.
During a trail ride, the rider performs considerable physical work, primarily using their arms and upper body.
The rider must shift their weight from side to side and back and forth to balance the vehicle when cornering or riding on hills. The rider uses a combination of arm and leg strength to remain balanced and prevent falling off the vehicle.
Holding on to the handlebars while accelerating requires grip strength and upper body pull strength, comparable to a rowing exercise.
Similarly, during braking, the rider needs to push against the handlebars not to fall off, which requires using similar muscle groups as when performing a push-up.
In more rugged terrain, the rider typically stands on the footrests and moves around to keep the vehicle balanced. This activates the leg and core muscles, similar to a squat exercise. Riding in challenging terrain can also help improve rider balance.
However, on an average ATV ride, the time spent standing was only 23%, while on a dirt bike, the number was 62%. This indicates that ATV riding is less effective in building lower body muscles and strength than dirt bike riding.
The participants in one of the studies measured a reduction in body fat % and waist circumference while only experiencing a slight reduction in body weight.
This indicates an increase in lean muscle mass while slimming down. Not a bad deal if you ask me!
It’s worth noting that off-road riding seems to affect muscular endurance more so than strength, so don’t expect similar results from ATV riding as gouging to the gym.
ATV Riding Improves Aerobic Fitness and Endurance
The studies concluded that off-road vehicle riding is primarily aerobic exercise, meaning it helps improve fitness and endurance.
Their testing found that ATV trail riding increased oxygen consumption by approximately 3.5 times from a resting state.
To better understand how that transfers to exercise effectiveness, it qualifies as moderate-intensity activity according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines, though at the lower end of the spectrum.
ATV riding’s effect in improving your endurance largely depends on ride intensity.
Someone putting along on a smooth trail will not gain the same benefits as someone tackling technically challenging stretches of trail or is into quad racing, which requires much more of the rider.
ATV riding with lower engagement levels only qualifies as a light-intensity activity according to the ACSM guidelines.
Quad reading, on the other hand, similar to competitive motocross racing, is considered an extremely vigorous intensity activity and is associated with a considerable metabolic demand and physiological stress.
Endurance training offers many benefits besides attenuating weight gain, like improving insulin sensitivity and a host of other risk factors for disease.
An intriguing finding in the studies is that riders experienced higher heart rates during their rides than physical exertion alone would suggest.
This phenomenon can be attributed to the thrill and adrenaline rush of riding a motorized vehicle through the woods.
This tells us that your heart rate alone is not necessarily a good indicator of an activity’s effectiveness from a pure exercise standpoint.
ATV Riding Improves Mental Health and Reduces Stress
While the physical health benefits of ATV riding still need more research, the positive effects on the rider’s mental health seem evident.
Just stop and think for a moment. Have you ever seen a sad person riding an ATV? No? I didn’t think so!
ATV riding boosts adrenaline and endorphin secretion, two hormones well known to elevate your mood. As a bonus, you get to experience fresh air and the beauty of nature.
According to the studies, recreational off-road riding is a great way to relieve stress. And I can attest to this from personal experience.
High stress levels are one of the main contributing factors to depression, and it’s no wonder the studies concluded that ATV riders overall have a higher quality of life.
How Long Do You Need to Ride to See an Effect?
One of the studies found that when you’re out on a typical ATV trail ride, you spend only about 14% of the time at an intensity level high enough to stimulate positive changes in aerobic fitness.
In other words, most of the time spent on the trail cannot be considered effective exercise time, with only 16-30 minutes spent above the threshold.
Luckily, the average ATV trail ride is about 2-3 hours long, enough to have a positive effect even if you ride only 1-2 times a week.
Ideally, the exercise time should be spread across the week, where 30 minutes, five days a week, meets the ACSMs recommendations as an acceptable form of physical activity to stimulate improvements in physical health and fitness.
Recreational ATV trail riding can offer an excellent alternative physical exercise for those who otherwise would not work out. Always listen to your body and only ride at a comfortable pace.
Elevated heart rates caused by more intensive riding forms could be a trigger in those predisposed to occult heart disease. So, if you suspect you might be in that group, consult your physician in advance.