As I contorted my body while comically sweating profusely in a $20-a-pop Bikram yoga class in a D.C. suburb, I mused that the on-the-verge TV writer Issa Rae isn’t the only “Awkward Black Girl” around. Still, I tried to avoid laughing at the deep sighs of the ponytailed man next to me, thankful to “Namaste” away my humiliation, happy for the ability to pay for the privilege, unlike so many black women who can’t.
It turns out, it pays to be rich when it comes to being fit: A new survey published by The Economist shows the rich are getting fitter, and the poor, not so much. Poor people are exercising less — access to recreational facilities and growth-area fitness programs such as CrossFit and Soul Cycle aren’t cheap.
For the economically marginalized, such as African-American women, who have a median net worth of $100, this shows up in the highest obesity rates of any other racial demographic in the United States: By 2020, 70 percent of black women are projected to be obese. Much is at stake because obesity is the doorway to a variety of conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and some cancers that lead to loss of life.
While cost is significant, structural barriers to fitness have an even greater impact on black women’s health. The idea that anyone can just go outside for a run in their neighborhood makes a lot of assumptions about that neighborhood. People are less likely to take a nice evening stroll if there are no sidewalks or if they don’t feel safe. There is evidence that making communities more walkable in low-income, African-American neighborhoods can increase exercise. More broadly, studies also show kids in walkable neighborhoods get more exercise. This is important because although the childhood obesity rates have leveled off for white children, they continue to rise for children of color.
We know where we live, work, learn, play, affects our health, and residential segregation shapes the quality of place for many African-Americans. According one study, even when compared with similar white neighborhoods, predominantly African-American neighborhoods have less access to healthy food, places to exercise, and more fast food outlets and liquor stores. There isn’t an easy fix as proven by the recent studies on food deserts. The data show that inserting grocery stores into poor neighborhoods isn’t a cure-all for the obesity epidemic. They have limited impact because the store’s potential customers can’t afford them.
It will take more than one policy to improve health because the issues are deeply rooted and complex, such as lack of affordable housing, and quality education and transportation and joblessness. Consider Baltimore, a city plagued by redlining, “broken windows” policing policy predatory lending and a life expectancy that can differ by up to 20 years depending on your ZIP code. The city has adapted a health-in-all-policies model, and through collaboration between residents and different government agencies, they aim to make change. For example, there is a plan to reduce the number of liquor stores in Baltimore through zoning codes.
Progress like this wouldn’t be possible without community members advocating for them, so the idea that people are complacent about these issues is false. There are initiatives across the country, such as the Kellogg Foundation’s Place Matters initiative and the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative that provide community leaders with the tools they need to make change and they have been successful. I know, I manage one: the Community Engagement Initiative.
To be sure, African-American women don’t wait around for policymakers to do their jobs when it comes to the wellbeing of their communities; they act. Grassroots organizations such as Black Girls Run, GirlTrek, and Black Girl in Om are promoting the physical, spiritual and mental health of black women through physical activity. These organizations and policies are important because if we remain complacent, accepting black women or certain communities as just statistics, it will cost us a lot more than admission to an awkward experience at an overpriced exercise class.