A Kink in the Exercise Plan: How Hair Affects Exercise for Metro Atlanta African American Teens Open Access

McCalla, Haley (Summer 2019)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/qj72p8351?locale=en


Introduction: African American girls suffer from obesity at a higher prevalence than girls from other ethnicities. However, exercising is a well-established method of managing weight. With adolescence being a time of significant cognitive growth and increased desire to make self-guided decisions, African American girls will make choices about exercise that may affect their health in the future. Therefore, it is important to understand barriers that may prevent these girls from engaging in exercise.

Objective: The purpose of this thesis project is to investigate hair as a barrier to engaging in exercise for African American teenage girls (ages 13-18 years) living in the Metro Atlanta, Georgia area.

Methods: From January to March 2019, 24 qualitative interviews with African American girls were conducted. These participants were asked about their hair, exercise routines, and methods of overcoming hair as a barrier. The qualitative data was transcribed, coded, and analyzed using MAXQDA Pro Analytics. This data was stratified by “exercisers” and “non-exercisers” to identify differences between the behaviors of these two groups. Relevant quotes were then identified to emphasize themes within the data.

Results: Girls had ambivalent feeling about their hair, but hair was still deemed an important aspect of their identities. “Exercisers” occasionally perceived hair as a barrier, but these girls heavily relied on protective styles (e.g., braids, twists, buns, etc.) to maintain their hair during exercise. For “non-exercisers”, hair was either a minor barrier or not a barrier at all; lack of motivation to exercise was the true barrier for this group.   

Discussion: Hair is an important part of identity for African American girls. Consequently, those in public health and health education must be cognizant of this potential barrier to exercise. Encouraging low-intensity—but still beneficial—forms of exercise like yoga, Pilates, and weight-lifting can encourage girls who may be hesitant about exercising because of their hair. Additionally, increasing social support around exercise, encouraging protective styling, and promoting a “physical health over physical attractiveness” philosophy can encourage girls to exercise more frequently and overcome hair as a barrier. 

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