I’ve cycled for over four decades on a wide variety of different types of bike, with the bulk of that pedaling on either a mountain bike or a road bike. As I get more miles on the clock, I’ve come to realize that both can have a major positive impact on our health and fitness as we get older. But, there’s one which in my mind really stands out at the head of the pack in keeping us fit and well long into our senior years.
The short answer is that I believe mountain biking is the better of the two for senior fitness.
Why? There are a number of reasons, and I’ll go through these in a moment.
First though, I want to emphasize that ANY type of cycling can be a huge benefit for us as we get older.
A study showed that cycling outdoors regularly (whether on a regular bike or an electric bike) could help keep both our bodies and our brains sharp, allowing us to age ‘healthily’.
So, cycling can be great for senior fitness, but which is better: mountain biking? Or Road biking?
This is my view:
I believe mountain biking trumps road cycling for healthy ageing; here’s why
I can already sense the mountain-bike-haters and the diehard roadies sharpening their pitchforks as I write this.
Whilst I get that there are two sides to every argument, on this one I have to say that everyone who disagrees with me is wrong.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in to all the reasons why mountain biking is better than road biking for keeping us fit and healthy in our later years. These being:
- Improved balance
- Better upper body/core strength
- More mentally stimulating
- Fresher air
Benefits of mountain biking for senior fitness
They look good, don’t they? Ok, well let’s take a closer look at each of these benefits.
As we age, many of us find that balance becomes more of a struggle. When that happens it can be a slippery slope to injury as impaired balance can lead to more falls. Adding in the lower bone density that can often come with age and falls can lead to serious injury such as broken ankles and fractured hips.
Activities that can help us maintain our ability to balance as we age then can make a huge difference to the quality of our life.
Cycling on two wheels, whatever the style of bike, can be excellent for improving balance. However I believe that there’s a big difference between the workout that you get for your ‘balance muscles’ on a mountain bike vs a road bike.
Why? Well, when you’re riding a mountain bike along a twisting singletrack trail with obstacles like roots, rocks and trees to negotiate, you’re constantly shifting your center of gravity left, right, forwards and back. You’re literally having to practice keeping your balance constantly as the ground shifts around beneath you. That’s a real workout!
Compare this with road cycling, where oftentimes you’ll be riding along smooth pavement in a straight(ish) line, and it’s clear that this doesn’t test (and improve) your balance as much as mountain biking does.
Better upper body/core strength
Watch road cyclists move along and you’ll notice that, in the main, all the work is being done from the hip joints down.
Road cycling is a great exercise for the muscles in the feet, legs and butt.
Above the hip joints though it’s a different story – here road cyclists tend to be absolutely still as they hunch over the drop bars.
Now compare this with mountain bikers and you’ll see big differences.
Obstacles on the trail mean that there’s a lot more shifting around to maintain balance and this helps build core strength (the abdominal and lower back muscles).
The core muscles are also given a workout when powering up steep hills and power down the other side, but here you’re also using your hands, arms and shoulders (think: improvements to grip strength, forearms, biceps and triceps).
More mentally stimulating
When I’m cycling on my road bike, particularly on long straight stretches of road, it tends to be my time to zone out and think about other things.
That’s fine and relaxing, but not exactly mentally stimulating.
Contrast this with mountain biking and you see a big difference:
Tight switchbacks on trails, gnarly tree roots, slippery rocks…these things all require complex calculations and on-the-fly decision making.
When you’re mountain biking you can forget meditating on your grocery list as all your mental powers will be focused on keeping you upright and on the bike.
This is a great brain power booster and can also have positive benefits on your reaction times.
Ok, so it’s a bit of a generalization, but mountain biking can also get you into fresher air than road cycling.
Road cycling tends to be done on smooth surfaces where there’s motorized traffic (city streets or urban roads). So road cyclists will tend to be exposed to more pollution and suck more of it into their lungs.
Get out into the backcountry on a mountain bike though and you have the opportunity to get away from those pollutants and grab great lungfuls of fresh air instead.
Choosing a mountain bike for senior riders
Hopefully I’ve managed to convince you of the merits of mountain biking for senior riders?
Yeah? Then let’s take a quick look at some of the key things to consider when choosing a MTB in your senior years.
Mountain bikes typically come with one of two different types of suspension: full suspension or front suspension. Front suspension has shock absorbing front forks. These cushion you against rough terrain and can be especially useful for senior riders in reducing vibration to hands and wrists (this is particularly beneficial if you suffer from arthritis).
Full suspension (also called ‘full sus’) mountain bikes have this front suspension and they also have suspension on the rear wheel, incorporated into the frame of the bike. This allows the rider to sit down on the saddle whilst cycling over bumpy ground without being shaken to pieces.
Full suspension is better at reducing the impact of shocks however it can add significantly to both price and weight. It’s therefore only likely to be worthwhile if you are planning to ride very steep, technical trails on a frequent basis.
As a general rule of thumb, the cheaper the mountain bike the heavier it will be. More expensive bikes will tend to have premium components that are lighter.
So, it’s a trade-off: the higher the price the lighter the bike.
Bear in mind that weight may not be as important as you think it will – if the trails you’re riding tend to be flat, then you won’t need to ‘lift’ the bike weight up hills. Also, electric mountain bikes (eMTBs), which I’ll mention more in a moment, have motors that easily compensate for extra bike weight.
Electric mountain bikes vs regular MTBs
They’re been around for a long time, but ebikes have finally come-of-age in the last 5-10 years.
One of the biggest impacts they’ve had has been in the world of mountain biking. Here they allow riders who don’t necessarily have the leg strength to climb steep hills to still enjoy this fantastic sport.
With more eMTB models coming on the market (and more competition leading to reduced prices), this could be a great time to choose an electric mountain bike for your trail-riding adventures.
If you rode bikes in your youth then you may be familiar with the style of bike brakes that pressed against the wheel rims. These worked fine, but tended to be affected by wet, muddy conditions. Therefore not great for trail riding.
Most mountain bikes now have a style of brakes known as ‘disc brakes’. These have pads that press against a separate disc rotor near the wheel hubs and give much more confident and consistent braking ability on slippery tracks.
Comfort on a bike can be affected by many things. Key though for senior riders are the style (or ‘geometry’) of the frame – more upright is better – plus saddle padding, tire pressures, and handlebar grips.
It’s a good idea to test ride a number of mountain bikes first – either at your local bike shop or by hiring different styles at popular bike parks.