The average level of physical fitness in America has declined. At the same time, our attention is being outsourced to digital screens and retail megachains. Even running races are increasingly managed by companies that charge high entry fees and leave behind large environmental footprints—with little involvement of the locally rooted, personally invested, joyously connected culture of family, friends, and neighbors. It’s time to take back our communities.

As a physician, I’m keenly aware that the medical community, too, needs to step out of the hospitals and reach into our neighborhoods and backyards. We need to be accountable to the needs of the people we serve, and treat patients as members of a healthy community, not as victims of diseases. We must build a culture of physical activity. Although most patients are aware of the benefits of daily exercise, it’s up to us to move them from wishful thinking to a practical reality. Public health happens in the community, not in the doctor’s office.

Many folks in our home state are not optimal specimens of health, and I don’t think many of us look upon running as a source of joy. The rest of the country isn’t doing much better. The developed world has become a culture without movement—or aspires to be—and much of the developing world is following this lead. Too many of us share the goal of avoiding exercise and unnecessary activity, and we’ve largely reached that goal by successfully engineering much of the movement out of our lives.

In 2009, our community set out to change that. We began to offer running workshops, community fun runs, and (with a dedicated band of fellow volunteers) large running events. Throughout, we’ve been motivated by the simple desire to see folks get outside and start enjoying physical activity—and bring their friends and family along for the ride.

This effort birthed Freedom’s Run: An Event for Health and Heritage—an annual citizens’ run that has triggered a shift in our local culture by reconnecting children and families to nature and fitness.

The Freedom’s Run team has been lending support to growing numbers of regional events, and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia now hosts more than twenty running races each year (up from only four, nine years ago). Freedom’s Run has raised over $250,000 for local health, history, and heritage initiatives. We have partnered in funding twelve school fitness trails, a 2.4-mile trail around Hite Road Park, and a program called Canal Classrooms, which brings fourth graders to the C&O Canal Visitor Center in Williamsport for a day of outdoor, place-based learning.

Everyone is welcome to enter Freedom’s Run’s one-mile fun run, 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or marathon, and each year, more than 2,500 participants from at least forty states join in. The tenth-annual Freedom’s Run will be held October 6—representing the biggest running event in West Virginia.

Most important, all of these events, races, and running groups are fashioned around a spirit of collaboration—a convergence of kids, socializing, connection, and community wellbeing. Participants share a feeling that we’re all in it together, that together we can reclaim our fit, healthy lives.
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Dr. Mark is a Professor of Family Medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine, and owner of Two Rivers Treads in Ranson (WV), the nation’s first minimalist footwear store.

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