Smart, local ways to be well in 2015: West Michigan trails

Yeah, yeah: you want to lose five pounds, exercise more, eat less. Who doesn't, at least during the month of January? But wellness means more than numbers on a scale, and a few local initiatives are playing their part in crafting a healthier Grand Rapids. Each week this month, Rapid Growth will feature one unique way to be well in West Michigan. Want a more thoughtful, sustainable path to feeling better in 2015? Read on.
During the month of January, Rapid Growth is featuring unique ways of being well in West Michigan. This article is part four of a four-part series. For part one, a profile of nonprofit yoga community EmbodyGR, click here. For part two, a look at growing organic produce delivery service Doorganics, click here. And click here for a story on ways design and environment increase wellness with Stair Week.

West Michigan residents are never far away from one of the best local resources for being well, though the chilly temperatures can make it easy to forget the quiet yet powerful benefits of our extensive trail network.
"Trails aren't sexy," says West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition Executive Director Kati Santee. "It's not feeding hungry children, providing housing; it's a luxury. But the economic and physical impact on communities is substantial."
Santee heads up the WMTGC, whose main goal is to develop and connect trails and greenways in a 17-county region, and says the network of trails has great potential to change our region for the better.
"Housing values increase six percent; you give people a free outlet for physical activity; you have an avenue that connects people to the land, enjoying the beauty of our state; and it encourages people to stay and play in their own communities rather than traveling out of town," Santee says of the things that happen when a trail runs through a community.
And while West Michigan residents are already embracing the hiking, biking, and myriad other activities that can happen on our trails (our fall feature, Take a Hike, is our best-read article of the past year), Santee says often people don't realize how, exactly, a trail comes to be in a community.
"Most people don't realize it's a combination of public-private partnerships: MDOT, DNR, city government, private donors," she says. It's her job to increase awareness, broaden outreach, raise money for maintenance endowments, find funding for community groups who want to develop a new trail, and encourage more use of the trails by all. It's work that benefits the whole community.
"It's not just about giving people a venue to go for a walk," Santee says. "We offer safe routes to school; we're talking about alternate modes of transportation to get from home to the grocery store or work, putting fewer cars on the road. Trails impact people's health and well-being, and also the health of the community."
Santee says a perfect example of a trail impacting a community is the White Pine Trail in Rockford, which allows families and individuals to combine physical activity with the exploration of a new town, boosting wellness as it boosts the local economy.
Michigan is number one in miles of rail trails in the country – old railroad beds that have been converted to trails, not necessarily paved, used for ATVs, snowmobiles, bikers, hikers, and horseback riding. They're a year-round resource for physical activity in our highly recreational state, and WMCTG is looking ahead at ways to connect urban trails with rail trails. Eventually, a biker will be able to begin a journey downtown Grand Rapids and ride trails all the way to Hart, or start in Van Buren County, go to Kalamazoo, head to Grand Rapids, and then end up in Ludington.
Rapid Growth is pleased to announce the beginning of a series of feature articles in the coming months that will highlight the people, places, and activities related to the unique trails in West Michigan. Beginning next month, we'll bring you the stories of individuals and groups behind trail development, communities who have changed because of a trail, and a range of urban and rural paths that wind through the heart of our region.
In the meantime, strap on your snowshoes or cross-country skis, and don't forget to hit a trail as you seek wellness in the new year.
"I think a lot of good memories can be made on the trail," says Santee.

Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media. She also writes at Reclaiming Sunday Supper, a project that explores rest and connection around the table.

Photography by Adam Bird
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