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The Nation

Working Out With Jesus, and Snoop Dogg

The fitness industry has come up with exercise classes that incorporate gospel, soul and hip-hop in an effort to appeal to African Americans.

January 15, 2006|Dionne Walker | Associated Press Writer

NORFOLK, Va. — Against the odds, Elaine Green is calling on a powerful ally to help stay fit: Jesus Christ.

A recent evening found Green, 51, at Norfolk's First Baptist Church, shimmying and sliding through a physical fitness workout set to a gospel beat.

"Amaaaazing grace," -- left leg up, and down.

"How sweet the sound," -- step left, step right.

"That saved a wretch, like meeeee," -- and squat, two, three.

By the blood of the lamb, she's gonna win the battle of the bulge.

Keen-eyed marketers in the fitness industry are spicing up their workout offerings with a touch of gospel, soul and hip-hop, tailoring the music and dance in a direct appeal to black consumers.

"They found there was a niche audience to tap into," said Keecha Harris, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn.

That's because nationwide, black waistlines are expanding. One 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 78% of black women ages 20 to 74 were overweight, with about 50% qualifying as obese.

Solutions are showing up on store shelves and TV screens. At Wal-Mart, Benita Perkins' "Taking It to a Higher Ground" DVD sets step aerobics to a background of Kenny Bobien and other popular black gospel artists. On the black-aimed TV One network, fitness guru Donna Richardson Joyner sets brisk workouts to live R&B.

And from New York to Los Angeles, hip-hop yoga classes like the one Arizona-based Ian Lopatin teaches entice blacks who prefer trying the "downward facing dog" position while listening to Snoop Dogg.

"It has roots in their culture," said Lopatin, who tours the country teaching. "If you're doing yoga to Tupac, it doesn't seem so foreign anymore."

Tailoring health messages to blacks is a common-sense response to an obvious market, said Lucille Perez, a health director with the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. In the past, she said, marketers didn't see any value in expanding beyond white consumers.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to say if we are a population that is disproportionately obese," she said. "Why wouldn't I develop a market and market to this population."

Packaging fitness for black consumers comes with challenges.

In the mid-1990s, University of Pennsylvania epidemiology professor Shiriki Kumanyika interviewed 53 black men and women and found that many viewed exercise as excess work that could do more harm than good.

Some thought it would aggravate high blood pressure and add to stress -- already running high for many blacks. These men and women overemphasized rest, some calling sleep even more important than exercise. That "rest ethic" goes back to slavery, Kumanyika said.

"Stories that are passed down through generations are that people were brought here and forced to work," she said. "It's kind of logical to think that the idea of not having to do this physical labor would be something that would be valued."

Those surveyed also thought blacks worked disproportionately strenuous jobs and therefore got enough exercise during the day.

"Most jobs we've got are going to work in jobs like janitors," one said. "We're going to work ourselves to the bone."

That belief held true even among desk workers, Kumanyika said.

"People might think of themselves as hardworking people to come home and rest," she said. "In fact, their jobs may be sedentary."

But for many black Americans, failure to exercise comes down to priorities and exposure, said John Grant, executive director of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta. The group's yearlong health challenge promotes exercise among black men by providing pedometers and encouraging fitness goals.

Grant said exercise hadn't historically been emphasized in black homes, and that exposure to things such as expensive gyms often was limited. Many blacks, he said, are focused on economic survival, making regular exercise "not one of those things that are high on our priority list."

He's among those who think incorporating black exercise instructors and some soul music could change things.

"If you can see a reflection of yourself as part of that, one becomes more inspired," said Grant, who watches Richardson Joyner's show. "They may be exercising to music I like or that is more culturally attuned."

Back at First Baptist, Tuesday night gospel aerobics class resembles a cozy family reunion.

The 15 or so women warm up to hip-hop before shifting into a gospel-driven version of the Electric Slide.

Moments later, they break into groups and take turns at exercise devices set up around the room.

In the center, one group of women hoots "Go Lula, go Lula," as another furiously whips a hula hoop around her sturdy waist.

All are black women. All are at risk for obesity. And all are trying to buck the trend with a little bit of soul.

"It's a cultural thing, a gospel thing," said Rebecca Brown, 70. "I just can't stop coming."

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