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Hair issues make some black women exercise less

By Rachael Rettner

Hair care concerns may keep some African-American women from exercising routinely, new research suggests. 

The study, which surveyed African-American women in North Carolina, found that close to 40 percent of respondents said they sometimes avoided exercise because of their hair. About a third said hair concerns prevented them from working out as often as they would like.

Women who exercised less frequently because of their hair were less likely to meet recommendations for weekly physical activity, the researchers said.

Many African-American women straighten their hair with heat or other products, a process that takes time and money, and can be undone with exposure to sweat or moisture. In addition, hair straightened with chemical relaxers is fragile, which precludes frequent washing. As a result, women  who straighten their hair may want to avoid sweating — and, thus, exercising, said study researcher Dr. Rebecca Hall, a dermatologist at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.

As a group, African-American women are among the least likely to meet physical activity guidelines (at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week is recommended), compared to other ethnic groups, the researchers said. And about four out of five African American women are overweight or obese, according to The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Therefore, strategies to promote physical activity among African-American women must address hair care issues, the researchers said.

Hall and colleagues surveyed 103 African-American women ages 21 to 60 who visited the university's dermatology department in October 2007.

Sixty-two percent of the women had a chemically relaxed hairstyle, and most washed their hair every one to two weeks.

All respondents said exercise was important, but about 38 percent of them said they sometimes avoided exercise because of their hair. Thirty-six percent said they avoided swimming, and 29 percent said they avoided aerobic and gym activities. Half said they had considered modifying their hairstyles to accommodate exercise.

The results were originally presented at a meeting in 2007. Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin raised the issue again 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."

The study also found 32 percent of respondents said sweating or humidity exacerbated scalp itching, and many reported hair and scalp symptoms, such as hair breakage and flaking.

"The high percentage of African-American women with baseline scalp complaints suggests that dermatologists need to consider these symptoms when providing care for African-American women," the researchers wrote in the Dec. 17 issue of the journal Archives of Dermatology. 

The hair care issue is not easily solvable, Hall, said. "Somebody might say, 'Oh, just cut your hair,' but that does not make sense. We have to figure out better ways to address this issue," Hall said.

Because the study was conducted in one region, it's not clear whether the results apply to women across the country, the researchers said. In addition, because the study was conducted at a dermatology clinic, the prevalence of scalp conditions may be greater than in the general population.