Many studies cite that women of African descent have lower physical activity levels and/or are more sedentary, than White counterparts. The lack of exercise among Black women results in them experiencing compromised life quality and reduced life expectancy. To combat the striking rates of cardiovascular-related diseases and to increase habitual exercise, health promotion interventions have been initiated designed for Black populations. Female participants in Project Joy, a church-based cardiovascular education programme, reported weight loss and lower blood pressure. This paper reviews a similar initiative; Black Women “DO” Workout! (BWDW), which makes innovative use of social media to encourage physical activity (PA) among Black women.
Key Words: women of African descent; exercise; social media
Numerous studies indicate that women of African descent have lower physical activity levels, and/or are more sedentary, than their White counterparts. A 2006 national health survey on physical activity levels in Canada found that when compared to Caucasian Canadian females, both African Canadian and South Asian Canadian women less moderately active (Bryan, Tremblay, Pérez, Ardern & Katzmarzyk, 2004). In a similar American study looking at Black, White, Hispanic and Asian women, the data revealed that only 8.4% of African American women completed the recommended level of regular physical activity (Eyler, Matson-Koffman, Young, Wilcox, Wilbur, Thompson, Sanderson & Evenson, 2003). Unfortunately, this lack of exercise participation among Black women contributes to a significantly increased health risk of cardiovascular-related complications such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes and obesity (Flegal, Carroll, Ogden & Curtin, 2010). A lack of active activities also results in Black women experiencing compromised life quality and reduced life expectancy.
In an effort to combat these striking rates of cardiovascular-related diseases and complications among women of African descent, and to increase their habitual exercise involvement, a number of health promotion interventions have been initiated across North America. These include offerings of free exercise sessions especially designed for Black populations. Evaluative studies of these types of exercise programmes suggest they produce appreciably positive outcomes. The female participants in Project Joy, for instance, an African American church-based cardiovascular education programme, reported weight loss and improvement in blood pressure after participating in the included exercise sessions (Jakicic, Lang & Wing, 2010). This paper reviews a similar programme, Black Women “DO” Workout! (BWDW), which makes innovative use of social media to encourage exercise among women of African descent.
The BWDW initiative was created and founded by Crystal Adell, a fitness enthusiast and personal trainer. Adell uses Facebook as a tool to encourage regular exercise participation among African American women. She describes BWDW as a grassroots movement for championing weight loss and healthy living, a crusade she says is much needed to address the sobering statistics that show 49% of African American women are obese, while approximately 66% are overweight (US Dept of Health and Human Services 2000). Adell notes that using Facebook, which allows her to facilitate communication between Black women, is her “personal attempt to work with a collective who are more than willing to share their fitness goals, services and lifestyle changes towards healthier living”(personal communication, 2010). Information included on the site covers topics from exercising, body image, healthy eating habits and eating disorders to the importance of fitness and nutrition during pregnancy. Adell suggests that the success of BWDW is based on “information sharing and by showing praise, encouragement, inspiration and support in the way of sisterhood and by championing individuals for their fitness goals, which ultimately keep others motivated in to want to do the same”(C. Adell, personal communication, 2010).
There is little doubt that BWDW is a success. Thus far the site boasts more than 85,000 members, mainly women of African descent, many of whom regularly visit and post to the site. While African American women make up the largest block of BWDW users, the site also attracts international members from Canada, England, African and the Caribbean. Launching an online social media page as a means to promote exercise adherence and encourage healthy lifestyles among Black women is clearly a new, unique and successful approach. In addition to being innovative, the strategy is also in accordance with the American Healthy People 2010 mandate to (1) increase quality and years of healthy life and (2) eliminate health disparities that are associated with race, ethnicity and social economic status (US Dept of Health and Human Services 2000). One of Healthy 2010 physical activity and fitness objectives is to increase physical activity levels among Africa Americans as disparities in exercise and/or physical activity levels continue to exist with this group and other populations including Hispanics, the elders and people with disabilities (US Dept of Health and Human Services 2000). Indeed, the Black Women “Do” Workout social media campaign offers the opportunity for women of African descent to make regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle a part of their daily routine.
The BWDW web page is attractive, functional, and perhaps most importantly, interactive. Members are encouraged to participate through such means as submitting healthy recipes to the ‘Chef de Cuisine’ e-cookbook and posting images to the photo album which showcases before and after pictures. There are also announcements about the monthly BWDW ‘meet-ups’ held in locations across the United States for women who want to connect in person, as well as a service that informs members about personal trainers available in their area of the country. And the site has become a space of promotion for several members who now compete in fitness and body building competitions after experiencing significant body transformations via exercise and through healthy eating. In addition, a range of BWDW merchandise are available for sale on the site.
Health policy makers and promoters across North America have acknowledged the need for a better understanding of Black women’s exercise behaviour as a basis for improving their traditionally low physical activity rates. The BWDW programme offers an opportunity for those in the health field to learn from, and about, Black women and provides a potential avenue for the dissemination of health information. Adell herself notes these opportunities, commenting that she would like to see collaboration between BWDW and “organisations like the American Heart Association, Go Red For Women, the African American churches and corporate organisations” (C. Adell, personal communication, 2010). She believes these kinds of partnerships “will allow for an enhancement of services to local African American areas and communities that statistically have a high demand for wellness, health and fitness related support” (C. Adell, personal communication, 2010).
The BWDW programme presents a best practises model for building supportive and effective health networks within communities of African descent. The site has proven to be a powerful tool for increasing exercise rates and thus helping to address the troubling prevalence of cardiovascular-related and other diseases that continue to plague women of African descent. It is hoped the BWDW programme will inspire ongoing dialogue about finding other effective means of supporting Black women to become active, whether via other social media software, or in more traditional in-person venues.
Sherldine Tomlinson, MSc.
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