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Bombing through Ganaraska Forest in Ontario on motorcycles and ATVs, student volunteers are testing the fitness benefits of off-road riding.

Ryan Enn Hughes

Three weeks into a new fitness regimen, and John Batasar is already seeing significant results.

"I've lost 12 pounds," says the 36-year-old engineer, even though he says he's eating more. "I've got muscles popping up I haven't seen in years."

Four days a week, Mr. Batasar gets up for his workout shortly after dawn. He secures his feet in tall sturdy boots, straps pads around his knees, puts on gloves, goggles, a helmet and something called a roost protector. Then he swings his leg over an off-road motorcycle, fires up the 230-cc engine, snaps the throttle and peels away.

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On this recent morning he starts with a few laps around an open field, then darts into the forest. The trail is tight and twisty. On short straighter stretches, he stands up and lets his limbs absorb the bumps. Coming into a corner, he drops down, leans the bike one way and his butt the other to make it whip around the bend. Before the bike has straightened, he's off the seat again to pop the front wheel over a log.

In deep sand, he leans back to weight the rear wheel. Going up steep hills, he puts his body forward to give the front tire bite.

Within minutes, there's sweat dripping from under his helmet. He's panting to catch his breath and grinning like a kid on a roller coaster. "I didn't think it'd be this demanding," he says.

Mr. Batasar is taking part in a groundbreaking York University study to determine the health and fitness effects of off-road riding.

Non-riders have trouble believing exercise can come from being propelled by a combustion engine, and there's been little previous inquiry into the topic. Riders often refer to a U.S. study from the 1980s that tested the physical fitness of professional athletes from different disciplines. It found motocross racers the second-fittest of the bunch, after soccer players.

The York research is the first comprehensive fitness probe of recreational off-roaders. The final phase of the three-year, three-part study is still under way, but many participants report results that match preliminary findings from an earlier phase, suggesting trail riding requires physical exertion levels on par with running or calisthenics.

"When I brush my teeth I can now see my bicep pop," says Sulan Ramdeen, a 23-year-old student who's riding a dirt bike four days a week for the study. She runs for 30 to 40 minutes four or five times a week, but says "I feel more tired at the end of a ride" than a run.

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Milad Bazaz, who's been riding an all-terrain vehicle four times a week, has seen his stamina increase. Laid up for several months after a car accident, the 20-year-old student would easily get out of breath. "Before, I had to take a break cutting the grass for two hours," he says. "But yesterday I did the lawn without a break, and then did the neighbour's - after two hours riding."

"Balancing on an off-road vehicle is like sitting on a stability ball," says Jamie Burr, a kinesiologist and exercise physiologist at York who is conducting the research as part of his PhD. "Controlling the handlebars - especially through the whoops - is like doing bench press and seated rows or upright rows. Standing up and down would be like squats or deep knee bends. Standing on the pegs is like doing toe raises."

The impact isn't only on the body, participants say. "I've never been happier," says Lauren Tannenbaum, 20, who's riding a bike four days a week.

Mr. Burr has the 60 riders in the study divided into two groups, half on motorcycles, half on ATVs. Most are York kinesiology students, but they range in age from 18 to 64 and include a Pilates instructor, an unemployed maintenance worker and a retired systems analyst. To qualify, they had to be new to riding and not exceptionally athletic.

The rides are two hours each day, which is what an average recreational rider does in a regular session. Half are riding twice a week for eight weeks, which is typical for an enthusiast, and the other half are riding four times a week for six weeks to simulate riding as a regular fitness pursuit. A control group of 15 people are not riding -just going about their daily lives.

All 75 participants record what they eat, and their other activities, and they have all undergone a battery of standard physical fitness and health tests at the beginning of the study, to be repeated at the end. The riders are periodically fitted with heart-rate monitors and oxygen consumption sensors, and global positioning satellite receivers log the speed and distance they travel.

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Enthusiasts and advocates hope the results will legitimize the activity, which is often dismissed as reckless thrill-seeking and equated with hooliganism. It was an inquiry and support from the Ontario Federation of Trail Riders that got Mr. Burr started on the research. The final phase is financed in part by the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council.

Mr. Burr says both organizations are taking a hands-off approach with the study. The results will be vetted by an independent panel of academics and peer-reviewed before publication. Groups such as the COHV and the OFTR would like to use the study to make off-roading eligible for the $500 federal Children's Fitness Tax Credit. Favourable results might also help counter those who want motorized vehicles banned from the few trails that allow them.

The Ganaraska Forest, about 90 minutes east of Toronto, is one of them. Each day, the study participants are taken there by bus. Once there, they are under the direction of instructors from Trail Tours, an off-road riding school.

Critics of off-roading often point to the pollution caused by motorcycles. Mr. Burr's tests of carbon-monoxide levels indicate no there isn't a risk to riders. At least two companies make electric off-road motorcycles, and major motorcycle manufacturer KTM is promising a competition-quality electric model for 2010.

Like many parents, Mr. Burr was concerned about injuries. All the riders have fallen several times, but so far there's only been one injury: a broken rib.

Ms. Tannenbaum, the participant who finds herself happier for riding, is more worried about the study coming to an end. "On the weekends I'm having withdrawal already," she says.

Rev up

Toronto area

Trail Tours, the off-road school 90 minutes east of Toronto that's assisting with the study, offers Honda bikes, ATVs, gear, instruction and guiding to new and experienced riders aged 10 and up: www.trailtour.com, 1-877-939-5267.

Canadian Motorcycle Training Services, which operates out of Horseshoe Valley Resort 90 minutes north of Toronto, and was involved in early parts of the study, has a similar service using Yamahas and takes riders as young as 6: www.cmts.org, 705-835-2790 ext. 1288.

Both charge $200-$300 a day. Half days are available.

Across Canada

For information on trails near you, contact your provincial trails association. There's a complete list at www.cohv.ca

Get educated

Like any new pursuit, it can seem perplexing until you learn the lingo and the ins and outs. Hang out at your local bike shop, scan on-line forums (there's one in just about every area), visit motorcycle and ATV shows. Riders love sharing knowledge, in person and on-line, so ask lots of questions.

The first thing you should know is that dirt-bike and ATV riders are two very different tribes, so don't go looking for information about one from the other.

Gear up

There is tons of used gear for new riders on Craigslist and the on-line forums of your local off-road riding association, but avoid used helmets. One hard hit and the structure can be fatally compromised without visible damage.

If you're buying a bike, start small, simple and used. If you maintain it, you'll lose very little when you resell it for something better once you've improved.

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