/ Trails and Recreation,

Rail Trails: Providing a Path to Healthier Communities

Saluda physician Dr. Lisa Broyles reflects on the health benefits of the Saluda Grade Trail.

Daniel Morgan Trail System,
Daniel Morgan Trail System in Spartanburg, courtesy of PAL: Play, Advocate, Live Well

By Carolyn Baughman 

One day while at work, Illinois native Shawn Gossman reached down to tie his shoes. It was a simple task he didn’t think much about until he sat up, and became dizzy and out of breath. This was a lightning bolt moment for Sean. He was overweight, a heavy smoker, and only in his twenties. 

In his article for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, Sean realized, “I was experiencing my own health crisis.”

A friend suggested riding a bike for exercise. Sean purchased one and headed straight for his local Tunnel Hill State rail trail in southwest Illinois. On his first rail trail ride, Gossman recalls, “I fell instantly in love with the trail and cycling.” When Sean was on the trail, he found that he loved being in nature and connecting with other people. 

It wasn’t long before Sean quit smoking, started eating healthier, and even met the love of his life. Together, they now share a love of hiking and cycling on their local rail trail. 

Biker on the Virginia Creeper Trail

Sean’s wellness journey is not unlike many Americans who have poor health followed by a lightbulb moment. Mr. Gossman’s earlier health conditions mirror the profile of many. Data from the Polk County Health Data Report reveals that heart disease causes the highest number of deaths in our community. It also accounts for 21.4% of deaths nationally, according to US News and World Report. Conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and diabetes are also contributing factors to poor health in Americans both locally and nationally.

However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites in a 2022 study that for those who are inactive (about 25% of our national population), simply increasing physical activity is the best way to improve overall health.

In Sean Gossman’s case that was through his rail trail. According to Rails to Trails Conservancy, rail trails can “help people of all ages incorporate exercise into their daily routines by connecting them with places they want or need to go.” They add, “Communities that encourage physical activity by making use of linear corridors can see a significant effect on public health and wellness.” 

A Path Towards Healthier Lifestyles

Dr. Lisa Broyles
Dr. Lisa Broyles

For more on the health and wellness impacts a rail trail might have on our community, we turned to local Functional Medicine Physician Dr. Lisa Broyles. Dr. Broyles and her family have lived in Saluda for eight years. 

About the proposed rail trail, she shares, “I’m excited about the Saluda Grade Trail coming. Maybe this could be a place where people could walk, bike, and skate.”

Dr. Broyles lives a healthy lifestyle, mixing in different activities with her family like hiking, biking, yoga, and horseback riding. She noted, “I like to change things up. I think it’s important as you age to not do one type of exercise. This helps avoid wearing out  joints.” When asked about the health benefits a rail trail could provide, Dr. Broyles shared, “Exercise burns calories and lowers blood sugar. Skeletal muscle uses glucose for energy, and when people get on the trail and walk, bike, or jog they are lowering their blood glucose.”

Dr. Broyles riding a horse

Dr. Broyles added the rail trail could also provide mental health benefits for the community, noting that being outside in nature can create an “endorphine release [which] impacts mood, depression, and anxiety.” Furthermore, she adds, “When you’re out in nature, you’re inhaling the clean air and hearing the birds sing, instead of the rumble of traffic. This helps you feel more grounded and gain some introspection.”

Family and Community Connectedness

Next, we asked Dr. Broyles how a rail trail might impact families and the broader community. She shared, “You have different options for enjoying the trail: you can walk the trail with friends and family, you can also walk side by side and engage in different forms of exercise.” She added, “For people with physical limitations, this may be the only way they can get out in nature.” 

Specifically in her hometown, Dr. Broyles noted, “I think one of the limitations to healthy living for Saluda is that the terrain is very hilly and people with physical limitations have a hard time safely exercising. The trail would provide a safer, graded trail where people could exercise.”

“I’m really excited about the Saluda grade Trail coming. I think some people are concerned this is going to change Polk County. We also love that it’s rural and not a lot of people know about us. But change is going to happen so I feel like we should encourage change in a healthier direction.” 

Bikers on the Thermal Belt Rail Trail. Courtesy of the Town of Rutherfordton.

The proposed Saluda Grade Trail would create a 31-mile mixed-use corridor along the historic Saluda Grade Railway, connecting communities from Inman, SC to Zirconia, NC. 

This is the fourth in a series of articles about the local people whose lives are intertwined with the past, present, and possible future of the Saluda Grade Trail. 

For more information about the Saluda Grade Trail, visit saludagradetrail.org.

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