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Cultural factors keep some black women away from the gym

May 12, 2007 by  
Filed under Health, News, Weekly Columns

( Andrea Riggs was ready to take on the competition when she opened her personal training studio in Black Jack, Mo.

The niche for Body Beautiful was to help black women get into shape, be healthy and look good.

The competition she ran into, however, wasn’t Bally or Gold’s or 24 Hour Fitness. Instead, her greatest competition came from attitudes about exercise and diet from the people she wanted for her clients: black women.

They told me they didn’t want to lose weight,” Riggs said, recalling her efforts to recruit clients. “It’s cultural expectations and pressures. African-American women seem to say, ‘We want meat on our bones, and we all want to be bootylicious and appeal to African-American men.’ ”

People who battle health disparities in African-Americans agree with Riggs. But they admit the topic rarely is broached because of fear of political incorrectness. Still, that well-meaning sensitivity may contribute to killing people.

The facts

African-Americans aren’t the only people to feel the effects of cultural impediments, but they’re at the top of many lists for having bad health.

The American Obesity Association says that cultural factors related to diet, exercise and weight among African-Americans play a role in interfering with weight-loss efforts.

The association also says that 78 percent of black women are overweight, and that includes the 50.8 percent who are obese.

Providers of health care know that being overweight or obese is a path to life-threatening diseases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that black women suffer higher percentages of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer and premature death. And, the CDC says, when they get these diseases, they have more severe cases than white women.

Yet compared with overweight white Americans, overweight black Americans are two to three times more likely to say their weight is average – even after they’ve been told they are overweight or obese by a doctor, according to

There’s been less pressure for blacks to lose weight because of a cultural acceptance of higher body weight and heavier body shapes,” the site says.

Local recognition

Dr. Michael Railey, medical director of the St. Louis County Health Department, says that health disparities are reaching a crisis level for black women and that it’s time health officials take gender into consideration for any health concerns, because one size doesn’t fit all.

For example, Railey says, “For black women to exercise, there needs to be a social connection. Studies tell us that black women will work out in groups, but not alone. Men are more likely to work out alone.”

Also, to get black women to exercise and adopt healthful lifestyles, you must take hair and appearance into consideration, Railey says.

“If a woman spends hours in a (salon) chair and spends $60, she’s out of the gym for at least two days,” Railey says.

“Black women who want to build relationships with black men are still forced to try to catch a man by looking the best they possibly can. Until a (black) woman is in a culture where the man says, ‘I love you just like you are; I love your kinky hair and I select against long hair.'”

That’s not the message that’s going out, he says.

And who’s going to make our black women feel beautiful but us?”


Some experts say African-American women often are unhealthy because they want to:

    – Fit in with their social circle.

    – Protect their hairstyles from sweat and heat.

    – Eat traditional foods, many of which are unhealthful, or in unhealthful amounts.

    – Appeal to men who tell them not to lose weight.

Easier said than done

Lori Jones, an instructor in nutrition and dietetics with St. Louis University, agrees that cultural norms can be a route to bad health.

“There is some truth to that in our culture,” says Jones, who is black. “Black women with a little more meat on them seem (attractive), and that’s not a bad thing. A little bit of hips, being curvier, is appealing, and sometimes you do have men telling their girlfriends and wives not to lose weight because they like the curves, the extra softness.”

Some American food traditions “date back to slavery – eating what’s available rather than what’s healthy,” Jones says.

And food becomes a center of celebrations.

“So we value food (as something) more than just an energy source,” she says. “And that’s not just us. Many cultures have a historical basis for their food.”

Still, traditions can be altered while not being abandoned, she says. For example, a soul food dinner could be made using a smoked turkey wing instead of a ham hock. Figure preferences aren’t going to change overnight, if at all, but that doesn’t mean people can’t be healthy.

We’re not all meant to be the same size,” Jones says. “While being overweight or obese puts you at risk for more chronic diseases, you don’t have to be (vulnerable) to those diseases. You can be at higher weights and be healthy.”


Meanwhile, St. Louis has many exercise programs available to black residents. Programs range from YMCAs to municipal recreation centers to small health clubs and church health ministries.

The Rev. B.T. Rice, minister of New Horizon Seventh Day Christian Church, heads health programs for the St. Louis Clergy Coalition.

He says more than 60 percent of St. Louis’ 130-plus churches have health ministries. The number has been steadily rising for nearly 20 years.

Also, churches are actively working with agencies such as the American Cancer Society and American Diabetes Association to promote healthier habits and screenings, he says.

Women overwhelmingly are the largest population at the activities, Rice said. Even so, the majority of participants in health programs attend only after their health is threatened.

“They’ve had heart attacks or they’ve been told they have diabetes,” Rice said.

A counterpunch

It’s not about being thin; it’s about health,” Riggs says. “What we’re fighting are choices. We don’t want to be thin; and the barriers that keep African-American women from working out, silly stuff … our hair? Your need to save a hairdo lessens your desire to perspire and perform physical activities?

We all want to look good, but to sacrifice your health doesn’t make sense.”


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