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Urban Cowboy: Snowmobiling — Fun, exercise, or both?

Wrestling a powerful 450-lb. machine through hilly twists, turns and deep, powdery snow takes a measure of human endurance and strength
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Whether snowmobiling can be deemed a health pursuit is open for debate.

Some people would say no. Casually cruising along on something like a poker run, an organized outing at a steady tempo, on a flat, well-groomed trail, requires little effort (outside of loading and unloading the snowmobile from a trailer).

IMG_5919Snow trail-riding portion of study, near Haliburton. Photo courtesy of Olena Klahsen.

On the other hand, wrestling a powerful 450-lb. machine through hilly twists, turns and deep, powdery snow takes a measure of human endurance and strength. Sometimes the machine gets stuck, and needs to be hauled out of a snowbank with brute force. That’s a hard core exercise.

The Canadian Council of Snowmobile Organizations (CCSO) caters to riders at both extremes, and everyone in the middle. Now, it wants to put some research into the potential health benefits of snowmobiling.

IMG_5046University of Guelph Prof. Jamie Burr and his Human Performance and Health Research Lab to help find health benefits of snowmobiling. Photo courtesy of Olena Klahsen.

So, it has enlisted University of Guelph Prof. Jamie Burr and his Human Performance and Health Research Lab to help. In the past, Burr worked with individuals driving off-road vehicles, measuring participants’ activity as they worked to keep them upright and moving.

Do snowmobilers likewise realize fitness benefits pursuing their chosen sport?

That’s what Burr and his lab members have set out to discover.

Last fall, they surveyed more than 4,000 of the national snowmobile organization’s members, to determine what they considered characteristics of a hard ride – hills, fresh snow, trail blazing -- and of a relatively comfortable easy ride, with groomed trails and only minor changes in elevation.

Then this winter, lab members led by master’s student Tania Pereira, worked with the CCSO to create trails that characterized such rides, in the spacious, gorgeous 80,000-acre Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve. Snow was light in the southern part of the province this winter; near Haliburton, though, they had enough to carry out their studies.

IMG_5025Metabolic computers measure the oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output of snowmobilers. Photo courtesy of Olena Klahsen.

The researchers had no trouble enlisting 20 riders to help them out. All riders rode the same recreational 600 cc. snowmobile, provided by the researchers. As well, they were equipped with metabolic computers, breathing devices that resemble jet fighter-like pilot’s masks, covering their faces.

As they went through the 20-minute course, a back-pack mounted computer that attached to the masks measured their oxygen intake and their carbon dioxide output, indicators of how hard the participants were working on their rides.

After the rides, participants pedaled on an exercise bike for 10 minutes, so researchers could compare their heart rates working on the bikes, versus the readings recorded on the trails. That comparison helps determine how active the participants were while snowmobiling, versus being engaged in conventional exercise.

IMG_5945Snow trail-riding portion of study, near Haliburton. Photo courtesy of Olena Klahsen.

In two weeks, the researchers are repeating this test a representative course in more severe terrain and higher altitudes near Revelstoke, BC. After that, they’ll start compiling and comparing data on leisurely use versus more extreme use.

“We’re not ready yet to make statements about the health benefits of snowmobiling,” says Burr. “Sometimes it’s hard work, sometimes less so. We know that even easy exercise like walking and light jogging contribute to people’s fitness, so, does snowmobiling? That’s what we want to find out.”



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Owen Roberts is a journalist and a columnist with daily, weekly and monthly print and online media.
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