When Barbara Davis, 63, of Lansing, Mich., lost one of her two daughters to ovarian cancer in 2008, she lost her footing as well. “I so was depressed, I didn’t go anywhere or do anything,” Davis says. But then she discovered Zumba, the Latin-inspired dance/exercise program. She came to enjoy the classes so much that she established a group at her church and became a certified instructor herself.
“I really used exercise, and connecting with people, as a way to manage my sadness and give me a new passion and direction," says Davis, who is grateful for the health benefits as well: “I was a size 18 when I started, but now I am a size 2."
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long suggested that lifestyle changes, like increased physical activity and improved diet, can greatly reduce a woman’s risk of contracting diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and cancer. To meet that goal, many women are coming together to support exercise and lifestyle changes for the long haul.
“As we get older, the risk for heart disease and stroke go up," says Dr. Michelle Gourdine, author of Reclaiming Our Health: A Guide to African American Wellness (Yale, 2011). “Getting exercise helps lower that risk.” Beyond the threat of chronic illness, she says, “as we get beyond 40, we begin to lose muscle mass and strength without intervention. Exercise and other lifestyle changes are an insurance policy.”
When she felt she needed to raise her own fitness level, Gourdine says, she joined an exercise group only reluctantly, but now is glad she did. “There is no question that group efforts, both formal and informal, offer benefits,” she says. “One is the social interaction of being with other women who can offer support and encouragement. Being engaged in group exercise and fitness offers motivation and feedback. You see people's bodies transforming. You might not be able to see it in yourself, but other people do."
Limiting the Cost and the Impact on Hair
For anyone eager to start a new exercise regimen, a personal trainer is tempting, but a fitness group may be far more cost-effective. Davis' walk-in Zumba class, for example, costs just $5 per session. “It’s affordable and they get the benefit of being led by a trained professional,” Davis says, "and we have a lot of fun.” Her Zumba group is now so popular that she has expanded from a single Saturday session at her church to four weekly classes at multiple locations led by a group of instructors.
But Davis and others have discovered that there is still some reluctance to exercise in their communities, in part because of an elephant in the room: African-American women's concern for their hair. It's a subject U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin often addresses when she talks to women's groups and hairstylists across the country. "There are studies that show that when we ask women, and particularly African-American women, 'Why don't you exercise?' they say, 'Well, I just spent a lot of money on my hair, I don't want to sweat my hair back,'" Benjamin said in a recent interview with NPR. "My older, white patients say the same thing: I'm not going to go messing up my hair when I just came from the beauty parlor."
Many women, in fact, admit to forgoing regular exercise because they have invested so much time and money in their hairstyles. "African-American women in particular, we spend a lot of money on our hair. We spend a lot of time on our hair. It's important that we look good, that we feel good about ourselves. And our hair is an important part of that. I see it in all races," Benjamin said. "It's a part of your mental health as well. So I'm not surprised that we're emotionally invested in our hair."
Davis had to overcome this psychological obstacle herself when she began taking Zumba classes. "When I first started, I was having to get my hair done so often that it was costing me hundreds of dollars,” she says, but now she's switched to a short, natural hairstyle and says she has never looked back.
Finding an Approach That Works for You
Exercise groups and classes not only offer affordable way to get fit, they help you connect to your community. There's also value, Gourdine says, and some positive pressure, in knowing that someone in your group will call and check up on you when you miss some classes. Churches are a good place to start the search for a group. Many have health ministries or healthy lifestyle groups, and you're typically not required to be a member of the church to participate. Sororities and community centers are other options, but you can also generate your own group among neighbors, co-workers or even your book group.
At her last physical, Dorothy Williams, 58, of Detroit got some shocking news. “The doctor told me that all my numbers, from my weight to my cholesterol, were out of control, and I had to start making changes or I wouldn’t be here very much longer,” she says. “I called my four sisters and all my friends who I knew were in the same situation I was in, and asked them to join me walking in the evenings.”
Williams' impromptu group has now grown from seven to 16 women. They've moved beyond evening walks to taking meditation classes and sharing healthy recipes. “It is saving my life," she says. "I have lost 45 pounds in the last year, and my numbers have improved to the point that my doctor has taken me off medication. We also had a couple of smokers in the group, who were always winded when we walked, and they got motivated to quit.”
In Columbia, S.C., the Urban League, working with researchers from Atlanta's Morehouse School of Medicine, launched I Am Woman, a free, six-week workshop combining physical activity, dietary changes, and advice for navigating the health-care system. “You can’t do better if you don’t know better," says program coordinator Juanita Dean Bates, who welcomes between 30 and 40 women to each workshop, ranging in age from 18 to 82. "Chronic disease is controllable and preventable if you take action," she says. “Our data shows that nearly 80 percent of the women who participate in our groups make long-term lifestyle changes.”
Dean Bates doesn't just coordinate the workshops; she's benefited from them as well. "Just before I became involved, both of my grandmothers, who were diabetic, passed away," she says. Since enrolling in the class, Dean Bates lost 32 pounds and reversed her own diagnosis of pre-diabetes. “I have been overweight all my life," she says. "I did this for myself but I also did it to be an example for the women in the group."
Andrea King Collier is a multimedia journalist and lead author of The Black Woman’s Guide to Black Men’s Health.