Being healthy shouldn’t feel financially out of reach
I’ve always known it was important to be “healthy.” But for much of my life, I didn’t know how to get there.
Growing up in the South, “health” was most often framed around spiritual wellness. As far as my elders were concerned, as long as there was time to regularly pray and read the Bible, I’d achieved the only self-betterment that mattered.
Don’t get me wrong, my family found it sinful to move through the day without having a “good breakfast.” But those meals looked nothing like the food pyramid I was taught to follow at school — at home, we ate mat-o-meal and Hot Pockets in the morning — but they fed me nonetheless.
Classes at school reaffirmed the importance of an active lifestyle and balanced meals. But those things felt more like theory than practice. Getting out of my chair at home without permission was a great way to be punished. Eating healthier meals seemed to take more time and cost more, so I didn’t ask for them. It wasn’t until I was out of high school that I realized I needed to treat my body better.
But when I started researching ways to become healthier, I was bombarded with images of thin, calorie-obsessed white women that didn’t speak to me, and instead, left me on the outside looking into a culture I didn’t understand.
Calorie counting sounded horrible. And paying a monthly fee to run on a treadmill never felt right. I wanted a healthy lifestyle, but in order to achieve that, I was told I needed to spend money I didn’t have on supplements, expensive workout clothes, and alkaline water. The way wellness is marketed today makes it seem like being healthy is a luxury. People want to be healthy, but the systems in place make out of reach. And in the meantime, we suffer.
“Many people, like myself, have been socialized to believe health is an unnecessary expense.”
The Department of Health and Human Services says less than 5% of Americans receive 30 minutes of physical activity a day. And this lack of exercise in the United States takes a social, mental, and physical toll. Americans are dying from conditions that could be solved in part through an increase in activity, like obesity and diabetes.
There are certain factors that can predict how frequently a person exercises, including education levels, income levels, and age. Race also plays a significant role: White adults are more likely to engage in physical activity than people of color. That fact is useful in understanding the breadth of the exercise disparity, but most of the available health initiatives forget that the barriers of life — notably money — cause many of us to put fitness on the backburner. Many people, like myself, have been socialized to believe health is an unnecessary expense.
“Research shows Black people are less likely to do facility-based fitness, and this limits our likelihood of exercising,” says Dr. Amanda Perkins-Ball, an assistant teaching professor in the Kinesiology Department at Rice University whose research focuses on developing culturally tailored interventions to increase exercise among African Americans. “There’s a level of discomfort and isolation that Black women feel when exercising at facilities, and it’s an overlooked barrier.”
I’ve felt that kind of aloneness. I live in a rural town, and gym visits cause a lot of discomfort. Being in a space with so few Black women makes me feel hypervisible. It’s nerve-wracking to be the only one in a workout class and anticipate questions about my skin and hair (it happens often). Working out while Black comes with scrutiny about my clothes, body, and form. Beyond all that, there’s the challenge of finding childcare and paying fees. It makes facility-based exercise less than ideal.
Yet, according to experts, regular physical activity is invaluable. “Exercise is self-care in the physical and mental sense. It helps to maintain a healthy body weight and improves mood, energy, and cognitive functioning,” says Perkins-Ball.
Those kinds of health benefits are the ones I sought. But so many aspects of wellness instead focus on weight — a culturally insensitive metric to determine a person’s health. Take Body Mass Index, or BMI. It’s a measure of body fat that’s often used as an assessment of overall health. But BMI doesn’t take into account muscle mass, bone density, or racial and gender differences in body composition. It enrages me that Black women’s bodies are judged based on comparison to the “average” — whatever that means — white male frame.
In 2016, researchers at UCLA were the latest of many to acknowledge that weight and body size don’t necessarily correlate with overall health. The findings, published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that when using the BMI as a metric, more than 54 million Americans are falsely labeled as unhealthy. More than 2 million people, who are considered “very obese” by virtue of having a BMI of 35 or higher, are actually healthy. That’s about 15% of Americans. Not only that, but more than 30% of people in the study with BMIs in the “normal” range — about 20.7 million people — were actually unhealthy based on health measures.
So what’s the solution?
Thankfully, low-cost and even free wellness options exist that make exercise accessible and non-judgmental. And many of these initiatives are led by people of color. Vanessa Garrison and her long-time friend Morgan Dixon founded GirlTrek, the largest public health movement and non-profit for Black girls and women in the United States.“We knew for Black women that health needed to be connected to other issues in our community, and that would be the missing link to move women from inactivity to activity,” says Garrison.
GirlTrek has recruited over 100,000 neighborhood walkers, and the group encourages women to use walking as a way to engage in a healthier lifestyle. Women are asked to organize walking teams as a way to support a “civil rights-inspired health movement.” There are walking goals and monthly fitness challenges — all free.
There are other opportunities for low-cost or free classes at local YMCAs, hospitals, or recreation centers, which often provide classes like Zumba and yoga, or running groups.
For me personally, walking has become a simple step into better health. I started walking recently because I was pregnant and in need of exercise. It didn’t hurt that the latest GirlTrek walking challenge just kicked off. Walking gives me the chance to get more time to myself and spend more time outdoors, which has been shown to have positive outcomes for mental health. I can feel my legs getting stronger, and it just so happens that my pants are getting looser, too. My regimen doesn’t fit into the flashy self-care images that companies share to market CBD lattes and $100 leggings. But it makes me feel good.
If I’m being honest, there are still moments when I peer into the world of fitness that is so regularly exalted by my white counterparts. Hot yoga classes and Instagram photos of matching two-piece workout outfits are sometimes appealing.
But I’ve had to learn that wellness doesn’t look the same for everyone. With each daily walk, I’m pursuing a fitness journey that fits better with my life. Maybe one day I’ll try a hot yoga class, but it doesn’t mean I am any less healthy if I don’t.
Every fitness journey begins with a single step. It doesn’t have to be hard or expensive to change your life. All I need are walking shoes.