A nonprofit is changing lives by getting West Virginians moving.

When a business is considering moving into an area, after asking about infrasture, the next question is always the same—what is the workforce like?

That’s why, in 2014, the New River Gorge Development Authority spun off a new nonprofit called Active Southern West Virginia (ASWV) to encourage physical exercise throughout the region. The group is tackling the area’s well-documented health problem to create a stronger, healthier, more capable workforce and giving residents a better quality of life.

ASWV’s work is broken into five program areas:

➺ Community Captains: The heart and soul of the organization is its team of 50 individuals who lead regular physical activity programs in their communities. Activities include water aerobics, yoga, tai chi, biking, running, hiking, pickleball, and more. In 2018, captains offered more than 900 programs throughout southern West Virginia with more than 8,500 people participating. It’s led to some inspiring success stories. After only six weeks in a tai chi class, one woman with mobility issues had built up enough strength to complete her grocery shopping without the aid of an electric cart.

Kids Run Club: This program recruits volunteer coaches to organize run clubs at elementary schools. Nearly half of the elementary schools in ASWV’s four-county coverage area now have run clubs, with 190 volunteer coaches and 1,600 student participants. Running teaches students confidence and reinforces healthy habits. Teachers have reported that students who participate in the clubs have better behavior in the classroom and, as a result, better grades.

➺ Bike/Walk SWV: We can’t expect people to get out and get healthy if there are no safe spaces for them to do so. That’s where Bike/Walk SWV comes in. This initiative encourages local governments to establish policies and invest in infrastructure that allows for active, healthy communities. The program’s first big project is in Mount Hope, where leaders have adopted a fitness-friendly approach to development, designated a one-mile fitness trail, and are working to develop a rails-trail.

Workplace Wellness: ASWV’s newest program is aimed at getting businesses to adopt health programs as part of the workday. The group is working with companies to change their policies and office environments to encourage employees to make healthy choices and also helping them provide a menu of activities to choose from.

Signature Events: While everything else ASWV does is free, the group holds special events throughout the year to raise money and awareness for the organization. In May, ASWV will hold a fun run at Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley for members of its school run clubs. In June, the organization has organized a family triathlon at Summersville Lake and, in September, there will be a stand-up paddleboard race.

In October, ASWV will again hold its annual Bridge Day 5K Run to coincide with Fayetteville’s world-famous BASE-jumping festival and, in December, the group will host an Ugly Sweater Walk/Run to celebrate the opening of Fayette County Park’s annual “Winter Wonderland” light show. For more information, visit activeswv.org/events.