Two years ago, while competing in a 5K run in Clermont, Danielle Frazier noticed a handful of runners a few paces ahead sporting T-shirts with an eye-catching catchphrase: Black Girls RUN!
And that's exactly what she did, running after the ladies to discover the motto's meaning.
Frazier learned they'd joined a fitness movement that has gone viral. Black Girls RUN! was launched in 2009 by two women keen to win the battle of the bulge in the black community through running. Some 62,000 women in 30 states have since laced up their Nikes to run, jog, or walk together. That counts four Florida chapters, including Frazier's group, Black Girls RUN! Orlando. Its Facebook page lists about 1,700 members.
Before I go on, let me pause a moment to address certain readers that often respond to certain columns with rants about a mythical double standard: "What if there was 'White Entertainment Television?' (a hypothetical analogue to BET) or a 'Miss White America' pageant?"
First, white girls also run with Black Girls — check the Crayola box of faces featured on the Orlando chapter's Facebook page. More important, Black Girls RUN! founders Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks weren't thinking exclusion, but preaching inclusion with a name they hoped would hook a segment of the American population beset with weight-related chronic conditions.
Today, fitting into the body-mass index — even with Spanx — is the exception, not the rule, for black women. Nearly four out of five black women weigh in as overweight or obese — defined as a BMI of 30 or higher.
Type 2 diabetes, the weight-related type, waylays 25 percent of African-American women 55 and older. Worse, African-American women unduly suffer diabetes' most serious complications — amputations and kidney failure. They're also more prone to hypertension.
The need to change the health script led Carey and Hicks to issue a clarion call: Black Girls RUN! While black women lack the power to change such risk factors as race or age, exercise is a powerful way to stave off, or at least stiff-arm, bad health.
That's what hooked Frazier. One minute she was at work, the next her eyes were fixed on a hospital ceiling, as she struggled to wrap her mind around her atrial fibrillation — an irregular and often rapid heartbeat more common among the AARP set. Frazier was only 27.
Post-surgical convalescence and medication side effects led to a 30-pound weight gain. To shed the weight and strengthen her heart, Frazier decided to run. And run. She's competed in some 40 races since joining Black Girls RUN! — and dropped 31 pounds.
Running is often a solitary pursuit. Black Girls RUN! makes it a communal thing.
"My favorite part is this wonderful sisterhood," says Frazier, now a 30-year-old insurance professional who lives in Altamonte Springs. "You never run alone."
That's true not just for the group training runs several times a week around Central Florida
"Someone showed up at one of my 5K runs, cheering with a flag that said 'Go Danielle,'" she recalled. As she ran by, she spotted the barely-familiar face of a Black Girl runner she'd only recently met.
That depth of encouragement, says Michelle Filmore, a fitness trainer and an "ambassador" of the Orlando chapter, will make the difference. So does the passive proselytizing that occurs when they run in largely black areas like Eatonville, where diabetes afflicts nearly 25 percent of residents — nearly triple the national average.
"Black women tend to take care of everyone else but themselves," says Filmore, 51. "When an airplane is going down, they tell you to put the mask on you first and help others. It's very inspiring to see women changing their bodies. They're not striving to be a size 2, but they're looking healthy."
We should hope they succeed. Waistlines aren't the only thing ballooning with America's obesity epidemic. One study notes obesity treatment now gobbles up nearly 10 percent of all medical spending — annually approaching perhaps $150 billion.
Here's hoping Black Girls RUN! obesity out of town.