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Surgeon general: Hair shouldn't keep you out of gym
August 22nd, 2011
01:59 PM ET

Surgeon general: Hair shouldn't keep you out of gym

The U.S. surgeon general stopped by the spectacle known as the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show on Sunday – and it wasn’t for a new 'do.

What better place to talk about health than at a hair show that draws 60,000 stylists? Dr. Regina Benjamin discussed the widely held belief that black women don’t exercise because  it might ruin their hairstyle.  It turns out Benjamin has struggled with this issue too.

The interview has been edited for brevity.

What brings you to the hair show?

Actually it’s the perfect event. My priority as surgeon general is prevention.  Everything that we do is to try to build a healthy and fit nation.

What we find when talking particularly with African American women - I’m later finding this with other women, too - was that when we talk about exercise, we hear, “I don’t want to sweat my hair back or I don’t want to mess up my hairstyle.  It cost me too much to get my hair done this week.”

When United Healthcare came and talked about this last year, it was a successful at the Bronner Bros. Hair Show with 60,000 hairdressers.  What better audience would be to help us find exercise-friendly hairstyles?

This is trying to encourage women to continue to exercise and be healthy and give them a way to do that without messing up their hair.

Is there evidence that this hair issue is really why some women don't exercise  or is this anecdotal?

There are some studies there.

I’ve talked to a number of women and that’s the first thing they’ll tell you.   I know that was an issue for me. I didn’t want to mess up my hair. You sweat a lot in your hair and it changes your hairstyle completely.

Unlike other races and ethnic groups, you can’t wash your hair and go out. African Americans, most of us can’t do that. We need to spend a little bit more time on our hair. We need something that cuts down on getting hair back in a nice  hairstyle.  So I don’t think it’s something anecdotal.  I’ve talked to women a lot because I’m doing this conference and it’s a real issue.

 In the black culture, a richness of hairstory

Benjamin's office cited two studies that examined why  fewer than 30% of minority women in the United States get the recommended level of exercise. The reasons were lack of time followed by "economic constraints, major life changes or traumas, safety issues, weather and environment, the hassle of personal care such as showering and keeping hair looking good," according to the American Journal of Public Health.

Has this hair issue become an easy crutch for not exercising?

It’s an easy excuse, but it’s a real excuse.

If you go out and spend $40-50 to get your hair done, you don’t want to go out and get it all sweaty and wet that afternoon before you got to show it off.

Other ethnic groups would come up and say the same thing. I’ve heard it from Hispanics.  I’ve heard it from a couple of my older white patients that I have at home.  They’re saying I get my hair done every weekend- I don’t want to be exercising after I get my hair done.

I don’t think it’s limited to African American women.

Bronner Bros. show highlights natural hair

How do you deal with this issue? 

I exercise at night.  That’s my solution: Exercise at night so when I finish, I can be at home. I’m a night person anyway.

Did it ever prevent you from exercising?

A little bit.  Early on when I was in college, I remember I liked swimming, but I didn’t swim because it messed your hair up.

It was a factor, it was a thought – it didn’t stop all the way, it becomes a decision point.

 'Can I touch it?' The fascination with natural, African-American hair

Are there hairstyles that work with exercising?

Last year, what we found was that the hairdressers and stylists tend to be able to show things they can do and different products that makes the hairstyle lasts longer. There are natural hairstyles, braids, short hairstyles and things like that.

They’re really creative.

Is it strange to talk about health at a hair show?

Everyone has to be involved. Health care doesn’t just occur in doctor’s office – it occurs in the home, work place, where you worship. We all have a role to play in our own health.

What better place than the hairdresser?

People will talk to their hairdressers about almost anything.  We like to engage hair dressers to get out our public health messages.

When you’re sitting in the chair, it’s a good place to have conversations about sensitive issues, public health issues… about getting HIV testing - everyone should get tested - things like diabetes and heart disease, strokes and getting your blood pressure checked.

The other thing, we have the Affordable Care Act. Hairdressers are business people and just reminding them that the Affordable Care Act really has some things to help small business owners.  They’re eligible for tax credit for up to 35% if they provide health insurance to their employees- and that’s going up to in 2014 to 50%. Many don’t know those benefits are available to small business owners.

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