From August to September of this year, I took three trips to Northern Ontario: the first to Manitoulin Island, the second to ride a loop from Sudbury to Timmins, Chapleau, Thessalon, and back and the third to Kakabeka Falls to see the falls and Ouimet Canyon. Despite motorcycle maintenance problems and lots of rain, the three trips had one thing in common. Upon my return, I felt great.
When I grab my camera and take a hike in the woods, stopping to take a shot of a Great Blue Heron, or a Northern Map Turtle, or even an American Bullfrog, my focus on nature gets me out of my head, reduces my stress, lightens the blues, and quickly has me looking forward to the roast beast I’m going to put in the oven when I get home.
If I pay attention to how I feel, empirical evidence tells me that going for a walk in the woods makes me feel better, both mentally and physically. With COVID, there have been many studies and articles telling us how experiencing and being out in nature is good for us. But, I don’t need a study to tell me that.
When I grab my helmet and riding gear and jump on my motorcycle, the focus on my riding gets me out of my head, reduces my stress, and lightens the blues. Empirical evidence tells me that going for a ride makes me feel better, both mentally and physically. I don’t need a study to tell me that either. But, I am quite surprised there is one.
A recent study, Modulation of attention and stress with arousal: The mental and physical effects of riding a motorcycle, conducted by Dr. Don Vaughn, et al, of UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behaviour, concluded what I already knew: motorcycling has both mental and physical benefits.
Riding a motorcycle has proven to increase attention, improve focus, and reduce distractibility. And, according to the study, it also increases alertness about as much as consuming a cup of coffee. I knew that I consciously try to be hyper-aware when I ride. What I didn't know is that there is a causal relationship: riding my motorcycle increases this awareness. Cool!
Physiologically, riding a motorcycle has proven to decrease the hormone related to stress: cortisol. It also increases heart rate, the study claims, about as much as if you were doing light exercise. OK, so maybe not aerobic exercise, but that's pretty cool too.
But what if you ride a motorcycle in nature, like in Northern Ontario? For me, it's a zen-like experience. I’ve said this before. "[H]ours of riding past trees, and forests, and rivers, and lakes. … It's moto-meditation at its best. I fall into a peaceful flow state that makes the ride easy, and the hours fly by. … I enjoy the peace, beauty and isolation… .” What I didn’t know is that there is scientific proof as to why this has an effect on me. Studies have proven that being out in nature provides positive health benefits both mentally and physically. Riding has now been proven to do much the same. If you put the two together, why wouldn’t you get twice the benefit?
But is it only twice? I’d argue that when you ride in Northern Ontario, the effects are exponential. During my trips, I strolled along the shore of Lake Superior, lost in the rhythm of its waves as they played tag with my toes. I sat beside waterfalls and let the sound lull me into a peaceful trance. I stood on the overlook at Ouimet Canyon and let its indescribable beauty envelop me and whisk my thoughts away like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ: John, you're not in Ontario anymore. But I was. I watched campfire flames dance, like a primeval spirit sent to remind me how lucky I am and why I should be grateful. My trips to Northern Ontario were uplifting. Re-energizing. They reaffirmed the goodness of people. They reminded me of the things that are important and the things we have to protect. I felt better physically. I felt better mentally. And I felt better spiritually.
Getting home from Northern Ontario feeling great wasn’t an accident. It was a foregone conclusion.
I’m definitely going back.