Before many black woman decide whether to work up a sweat by jogging on the treadmill or gliding on the elliptical, they have an even more pressing dilemma – what to do with their hair.
A study by Dr. Amy McMichael, interim chair of Dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, that found that some black women avoid exercise because of its negative affect on their hair made national headlines last week.
McMichael, who has been practicing for nearly two decades, said she launched her study, recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) network’s Archives of Dermatology, after noticing some disturbing trends among her African American female patients, many of whom were seeking treatments for conditions related to being overweight or obese.
“One of my approaches as a physician is to find out how can I help them be more overall healthy and part of that is to ask if they exercise,” explained the Philadelphia native. “It seems like (concerns about hair care and maintenance) was coming up a lot so I thought that may be a barrier for a lot of women, not just the women that I’m talking to.”
Together with a team of researchers, McMichael began surveying patients who came into her office. The team amassed a group of more than 100 women ages 21-60 who identify as African American.
“I think the women were excited to even be participants in the study,” McMichael remarked. “I think people were very excited to have someone look at this.”
The 40-question survey that participants responded to confirmed McMichael’s expectations: hair care and maintenance were a factor that kept many women from establishing regular exercise routines. Forty percent of survey respondents said they avoided exercise because of hair-related issues. McMichael was not surprised. As an African American woman with relaxed hair, McMichael said she is well versed in the time consuming routine that is required to maintain chemically straightened hair, which often frizzes when it is exposed to sweat or other forms of moisture.
“I kind of had a notion that this was going to be an issue, and I thought that if I said it in a paper, people were going to question it,” said the mother of two. “…So I thought that it would be good to actually prove it, because once you prove it, you can begin to address it.”
Sharon Cunningham, founder of U-Fit2 Health and Wellness, said she isn’t surprised to hear that hair issues are one of the reasons why black women choose not to exercise.
“For black women, it’s a major concern,” said Cunningham, who has spent more than 25 years in the fitness industry. “It’s the number one problem that they can overcome.”
U-Fit2 is behind the popular U-Move Praise, which fuses praise and worship with exercise and is offered at several area churches, including during Union Baptist Church’s monthly Sweatsuit Sundays. Cunningham said that with the deck often stacked against blacks when it comes to disease and chronic conditions, good health and wellness must be the paramount concern.
“Our mission and motto is restoration,” Cunningham said. “We want to stop health disparities before they start.”
Though hair remains a big issue in encouraging women to exercise, Cunningham said with natural hairstyles becoming so popular, many women are opting to ditch chemical treatments in favor of natural styles that often are less difficult to maintain in concert with a fitness routine. Cunningham said she encourages all her clients to make physical activity a top priority in their lives.
“I say, ‘Don’t use it as an obstacle,’” she said of her hair issues. “‘Find a way to get around it, no matter what it takes.’”
Jameil Weldon, lead ambassador for the local Black Girls Run organization, which establishes jogging groups for African American women across the county, said she hasn’t encountered many complaints about exercise interfering with hairstyles among her members.
“It’s definitely an issue that has arisen on multiple occasions across the nation for Black Girls Run groups, but I have not heard a whole lot about hair being a hinderance for people working out here,” said Weldon, who started the local BGR chapter, which now has more than 500 members, in August 2011. “I think people, once they get to the point where they really want to make a lifestyle change, hair is not going to stop them.”
With that being said, Weldon, who has worn her hair in every configuration from relaxed to natural to her current dreadlocks, conceded that some women may still allow their hair to play a bigger role in their physical health, or lack thereof, than it should from a logical standpoint.
“I think hair is definitely still an issue,” remarked the 30 year-old. “You don’t want to go around looking crazy just because you like to workout. I would say it could be a deterrent, but it shouldn’t be.”
McMichael, a Pennsylvania School of Medicine alumna, found that other factors, such as lack of childcare and funds to pay for fitness center memberships and concerns about neighborhood safety also stand in between black women and exercise. She feels these factors may have played an even larger role in deterring physical activity than hair concerns. McMichael added that she is planning to conduct another study in the coming year that will look at best practices as well as incorporate other ethnic groups, such as Caucasian women, who have also reported hair care being a barrier to exercise, she said.
McMichael said she has found ways to maintain her hair without sacrificing her workout routine, such as keeping her hair pulled back in a bun while exercising and saving the more strenuous workouts for the end of the week, near the time she plans to wash her hair. She said she is hopeful her study will help other women and their healthcare providers realize that hair can be a hinderance to a woman’s health if she allows it to be a barrier to exercise, and that there are ways to maintain the hairstyle you want and the healthy body you need.
“There’s not one cut out way that it’s going to work for everyone, and that’s part of the message that I want to say,” she commented. “We have to come up with better products, better options and think of more innovative ways to help people overcome this barrier.”
For more information about Black Girls Run, which is starting a new Couch to 5k program for beginner runners in January, find Black Girls Run Winston-Salem on Facebook. For more information about U-Fit2, visit www.ufit2.org.