Hair Issues Make Some Women Choose Not To Exercise, Study Claims

When Dr. Amy J. McMichael noticed that a large number of African-American women she treated were overweight, she decided to find out why. Turns out, hair is to blame.

That’s right. Hair.

For many African-American women, the process of straightening and styling their hair is a time-consuming — and often expensive — process. The process can also be undone more quickly be heat and moisture. This causes some women to cut out exercise to maintain their hairstyle.

In the study, instigated by McMichael and colleague Dr. Rebecca Hall at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, surveyed African-American women who came to McMichael’s office. The study found that close to 40 percent of respondents said they sometimes avoided exercise because of their hair. About a third of those surveyed said hair concerns “prevented them from working out as often as they would like.”

According to the study, women who exercised less frequently because of their hair were less likely to meet doctors’ recommendations for weekly physical activity.

Compared to other ethnic groups, African-American women are among the least likely to meet physical activity guidelines, according to researchers. Suggested physical activity is considered at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.

In addition, four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Health professionals are therefore looking for strategies to promote physical activity among African-American women. And to do this, researchers claim, they must address hair care issues.

In the study, all responders said that exercise was important; half of women said they had considered changing their hairstyles to accommodate exercise. Of the women surveyed, 62 percent had chemically relaxed hairstyles, and most washed their hair every one to two weeks.

Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin spoke of the issue last year, telling the New York Times, “When you’re starting to exercise, you look for reasons not to, and sometimes the hair is one of those reasons.”

UnitedHealthCare sponsors a yearly contest to help come up with exercise-friendly hairstyles for the African-American community. They also provide classes for hairstylists to learn the new hairstyles. Dr. Reed Tuckson, a former Washington, DC Public Health Commissioner and chief of medical affairs at UnitedHealth Group, notes that he hoped to change the mindset of millions of women by proving that looking good and exercising can go hand in hand.

“What’s been really fun about it is that prominent hairstylists are starting to recognize now that what we are doing by emphasizing the hairstylist’s role is much more profound, that doing hair can play into overall healthiness and wellness for their customers,” Tuckson explained. “So many of them are starting view their role as more important.”