There is an inescapable, childlike joy that comes from riding a bike over dramatic high desert landscapes, or through forests of towering pines, on one of Prescott’s many and varied trails. The good news is that you don’t have to be a pro to join the fun! In fact, whether you are seven or seventy, a novice or seasoned cyclist, there’s a ride for you in the 250 miles of trails that wind in and around Prescott. The physical benefits of trail riding have been extensively documented, and new research suggests that mountain biking can also keep you healthy in spirit and mind.
Ximena Florez, Vice President of the Board of the Prescott Mountain Bike Alliance (PMBA), with responsibility for membership and social events, can’t contain her enthusiasm for mountain biking. “It’s fun, it can be social (or solo), and it keeps you smiling and feeling young! There are so many benefits, including physical fitness and mental health. I think trail riding is also a form of meditation, because when you ride, you need to keep your focus on the trail.”
Ximena emphasizes that a great variety of people can, and do, enjoy mountain biking. “Almost anyone can ride, especially in Prescott, because our focus at PMBA is on advocating for diverse types of trails that appeal to people of all ages and abilities. Over a hundred miles of trails have been added in the Prescott area since PMBA’s inception, ten years ago. There is something for everyone. Examples include the trails at Pioneer Park for beginners, Thumb Butte and Spence Basin for intermediate riders, and the Dells for experienced cyclists. PMBA is continually raising funds for trail maintenance and expansion through its membership program.”
Physical Strength, Fitness and More
The physical benefits of cycling in the great outdoors are well documented and include:
- Riding a bike over varied terrain builds strength and stamina throughout the body, including arm, back, and core muscles.
- Balance and coordination improve quickly on a mountain bike.
- Cycling puts less stress on joints than many other forms of weight-bearing exercise.
- Exposure to natural, bright light can improve sleep by stimulating the production and timely release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates wake and sleep cycles.
- Exposure to sun, even for just 5-10 minutes (without sunscreen) creates vitamin D, which is important not only for bones, but for the immune system as well. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that a large number of diseases, including autoimmune conditions, some types of cancer, and osteoporosis may be linked with too little exposure to natural light and sun.
- Getting dirty (which is always part of the fun of mountain biking) might also have benefits! Significant research demonstrates that regular exposure to natural soil (i.e. dirt) supports a healthy microbiome: the collective bacteria living in and on us that support health in countless ways.
Improved Focus, Resiliency and Mood
Research on the mental health benefits of mountain biking is relatively new and really exciting. For example, an ongoing study funded by Specialized Bikes demonstrates significant benefits for kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. In 2012, Mike Sinyard, Founder and CEO of Specialized Bikes partnered with Stanford Medical School and RTSG Neuroscience Consultants to conduct research on riding and brain function. Along with improved outcomes in school, kids that participate in this ongoing study also report improved mood and a greater ability to focus on activities outside of school. While any kind of physical activity can help with grades and mood, the skills developed through mountain biking seem to build additional layers of confidence, focus, and resilience.
Additional research includes:
- Work done by NICA, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which uses mountain biking to teach essential life skills to youngsters. NICA research shows that kids who ride on a regular basis build resiliency and self-esteem. In a team sport where no one sits on the bench, kids also learn teamwork, camaraderie, consideration, and a host of other advanced social skills.
- A Scottish study, examining the benefits of mountain biking for people struggling with a variety of mental health issues. In this small pilot program, participants rode at regular intervals for six weeks in Glentress Forest, a site famous around the world for awe-inspiring trails. Preliminary data suggest that the cyclists experienced improvements in mood, self-worth, and social skills. The program is currently being considered as a treatment option for outpatient mental health clients throughout the United Kingdom.
- Programs sponsored by the Semper Fi Fund, an organization that exists to help veterans, with visible and invisible wounds, transition from active duty to civilian life. Mountain biking is just one of many sports veterans can join, with adaptive equipment and Olympic-level coaches provided and funded by the Semper Fi Fund.
Overcoming complex or even simple challenges on the trail can bring a sense of mastery, accomplishment and joy to anyone. PMBA offers a variety of opportunities to ride, with scheduled skill building sessions and group rides listed on their website at https://prescottmtb.com. For up to date news and last minute announcements, follow PMBA-Prescott Mountain Biking Alliance on Facebook and Prescottmtb on Instagram, where you can also follow the development of Arizona’s first gravity-flow trail. PMBA recently received a grant to develop this one-way loop trail dedicated to all-level mountain biking.
Florez reminds riders that mountain biking “it is all about sharing the trails” and offers this simple guide to trail etiquette.
- ALWAYS give hikers and horses priority. Make it a habit to pull off the trail and let others pass safely by.
- Ride with a bell, so trail users know when you are coming up behind them.
- Give fellow bikers who are riding uphill a break. They are working hard and should take priority over those going down.
If you haven’t been on a bike since you were a kid, consider giving trail riding a try! Start with easy trails to build confidence, strength and skill, and then advance – if you want to. It’s also ok to simply enjoy the warm sun, clean air and beautiful Prescott views on an easy, joy-filled ride. Don’t worry if it’s been a while. It’s like riding a bike – you don’t forget!