Jen Bradshaw found many rewards in a year-long odyssey to visit all 38 Ottawa County parks and open spaces. But the opportunities for exercise and rejuvenation might top the list of park payoffs.
“I and a couple of girlfriends get out and hike a couple times a week all winter long,” Bradshaw said. “It just makes the winter go by faster to get this fresh air in your system. I think a lot of people take for granted what we have here in West Michigan — an incredible opportunity to get out and enjoy the woods, the dunes, the wildlife, and to benefit from the healthy aspect of it.
“So many times, at the end of a day, I think I just want to go home,” she continued. “But then, meeting some girlfriends, we get out and hike for 45 minutes, and it feels so good, getting the blood flowing, the fresh air in my lungs.”
Bradshaw and colleague Beth DeWilde at Paragon Recruiting in Holland make a habit of regular exercise to refresh mind and body. So, it made sense for them in 2016 to launch the Paragon Parks Tour.
They began that January by hiking Mount Pisgah at the Historic Ottawa Beach Park. After running, hiking, biking and kayaking their way through the year — and through all 38 Ottawa County parks and open spaces — they finished in December at Grand Ravines, Bend Area and Hager Park.
In her blog about the tour, Bradshaw encourages people to team up with friends or co-workers to explore what the county parks have to offer.
Indeed, park offerings range from waterfront to dune to deep forest to rivers and streams. They also offer healthier communities, by providing places that motivate healthy activity.
Numerous studies demonstrate the health benefits of green spaces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls parks and trails “an important part of a community.”
“Having access to places for physical activity, such as parks and trails, encourages community residents to participate in physical activity and do so more often,” the CDC notes. “The closer you live to a park, the more likely you are to walk or bike to those places, and use the park for exercise.”
Research has shown benefits of spending time in green spaces that include improved mood and attitude, stress reduction, better mental health, and more mindfulness and creativity.
“We now know that nearby nature … directly contributes to quality human habitat and is profoundly important for the health of mind and body,” writes Kathleen Wolf, a research social scientist at the University of Washington who also works with the U.S. Forest Service.
Recognizing that, the Ottawa County Parks Foundation is working to enhance and expand green space offerings in our area.
Parks and other green spaces provide natural settings for Pop-Up Fitness classes that Necia Ornee leads. She wants people to get away from the idea that they have to work out in a gym, and to understand the value of being out in fresh air.
“It’s really fun to see people not used to doing things outside — they’re surprised at how wonderful it is,” she said.
And Ornee is surprised at how many people aren’t familiar with what area parks have to offer, including trails, beaches, playgrounds, picnic areas and more, all of which support healthier living.
Bradshaw, too, believes the parks spread across Ottawa County can encourage good health practices.
“The opportunities are there,” she said. “There’s always a park close by you, so it lessens the opportunity for excuses to not get out and exercise.”
Bradshaw’s park tour opened her eyes to the variety of opportunities the parks offer — besides wooded trails, shining water and thick forests, there are beautiful venues for weddings, family reunions or other events in woods or along rivers. She also pointed out that parks serve the varied and changing interests of the community — offering mountain biking trails at Upper Macatawa Natural Area or Riley Trails, for example, or kayak launch facilities at Hemlock Crossing, Connor Bayou and Grand River Park.
“I think there’s something for everyone to do,” Bradshaw said. “There’s no reason to not get out and be active with what has been provided to us in the parks.”
And that could be as simple as enjoying a dune scene or listening to spring peepers.