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Hair over health: For many black women, style trumps exercise


Charliiey says she won't exercise after spending several hours, and big bucks, at the salon. (Photo by Julie Zeveloff)


Charliiey says she won't exercise after spending several hours, and big bucks, at the salon. (Photo by Julie Zeveloff)

Charliiey Byron just got a new weave, and she can’t stop eyeing herself in the mirror.

"I was going to go to the gym, but I just got this, so I can’t anymore," she said, patting her jet-black shoulder-length locks lovingly.

The weave, a hair extension, cost $175 and needs to be replaced every six to eight weeks. Charliiey wouldn’t pay that much for shoes, she said, but for a great hairstyle, it’s a small price.

"I bust a sweat when I go to the gym,” explained Charliiey, 28, a student, UPS employee, and self-proclaimed partygoer whose given name is Charlene. “That’s why I can’t go today."

A new study conducted by the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, N.C., suggests that Charliiey is not alone. Thirty-one percent of the 103 African-American women surveyed said that they exercise less because it might harm their hairstyles, according to the study released in November. All the women agreed that exercise is important but fewer than a quarter actually met the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended exercise rates.

Few women would head straight to the gym from the hair salon, but the hair dilemma appears to be especially knotty for African-American women because they tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time on professional hair care, said Shani Smith, a fourth-year medical student at Wake Forest who worked on the study.

The problem is raised to the level of a public health issue because as a group African-American women are in greater need of exercise. Seventy-eight percent of black women are overweight and 50 percent can be categorized as obese, according to the American Obesity Association.

"All women are probably concerned about their hair, but it is more pronounced among African-American women because they are trying to maintain hairstyles that are not natural,” said Kimberly Garrison, a fitness expert and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. “Black women’s hair is more delicate, even though it is coarser, because the chemicals they often use to make it look ‘anglo’ breaks their hair down," Garrison said.

The average African-American woman gets her hair done every two weeks, though some come in more often, estimated Tesa, 38, a hairstylist at Pure Elegance Unisex Salon on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, who declined to give her last name. Some styles, like long weaves, are expensive and can be destroyed by sweat or water, she said. Women who opt for those may decide to forgo a sweaty workout.

"Monday through Thursday, she might go to the gym," Tesa said of her typical client. "But Friday, she will go and get her hair done for the weekend–-and she’s not going to go to the gym after."

Even those who do work out regularly may be reluctant to work up a sweat for fear of ruining their hair. Garrison, who owns a fitness center in Philadelphia in addition to writing her column, said that the majority of the women she trains use hairstyle as an excuse to skimp on the effort.

"Generally, a lot of women of color that I see working out aren't pushing themselves as much as they could because they are concerned about their hair," she said. “They say, ‘I’ve got to go to work and I don't want to mess my hairstyle up,’ so they don’t work as hard.”

But not everyone agreed that hairdos trump workouts. In her 22 years as a hairstylist, no client ever complained that her hair stopped her from exercising, said Yvette Peaks, who specializes in dreadlocks at the Sho Nuff Unisex Salon in Harlem.

"Everyone I know who works out doesn’t care about her hair," said Peaks. Short hairstyles, braids, and dreadlocks are the best styles for exercisers, she explained, because they are easiest to care for.

In the late 1990s, researchers at a health initiative for young black women run by Harvard University also discovered the hair dilemma. Their answer was "Hair Care Tips for Sisters on the Move," a pamphlet that offered advice for maintaining both a healthy lifestyle and hairstyle.

"We found that the pamphlet was extraordinarily well received," said Rima Rudd, a senior lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health and a principal investigator for the program. "Women reported not so much that they learned something new, but that a silence had been broken. It was a good vehicle for talking about the issue."

The pamphlet was distributed at health and fitness centers in the Boston area and got many African American women to start moving, Rudd said. Though the Harvard program ended several years ago, the pamphlet is still available online. (The address is

Tesa, the hairstylist, just recently began recognizing the importance of regular exercise. She is overweight and has diabetes. She said she recently started working out on mornings before work because she wants to live to see her grandchildren. As a single mother of four, she could not afford to make excuses about not going to the gym and not eating right, she said.

"I work six to 10 hours a day and I make time to work out," she said. "I'm not going to let my hair stop me."


Hair Care Tips

(Adapted from "Hair Care Tips for Sisters on the Move")

Prevent sweat damage by controlling moisture and salt buildup

Use a mild, pH-balanced shampoo and a moisturizing protein conditioner at least once a week.

Wear a swim cap in the pool to protect hair from chlorine damage.

For natural styles, treat hair and scalp with a light conditioning oil daily.

Blunt cuts and bobs can be easily styled after workouts.

Braids, twists and locks are all easy to maintain while exercising.

Style chemically relaxed hair with a wide-toothed comb.

After a workout, dry-set hair with rollers and use a leave-in conditioner on tips.