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Hair Care May Be Unspoken Barrier To Exercise For Black Women, Study Finds

Ohio State University doctor Sophia Tolliver attends to a patient.
The Ohio State University
Ohio State University doctor Sophia Tolliver attends to a patient.

A new Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center studyfinds that doctors may lack the knowledge to help African American women overcome a specific barrier to exercise.

The study, published this month in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, found 95% of primary care doctors talked to black women patients about exercise. But more than three-quarters of respondents never discussed how hairstyling concerns can be a hindrance. After all, sweat from exercise can change hair texture, and the problems are exacerbated if chemicals are used to style it.

“We are doing ourselves a disservice by not touching on all of the barriers that could potentially promote exercise as a meaningful and regular habit in the African American female population,” says Ohio State family medicine physician Sophia Tolliver, who led the study.

The CDC found that 56% of African American women ages 20 and over are obese and at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. But Tolliver says hair care may be one reason why some African American women may not exercise regularly.

Tolliver says the study shows that including cultural competency in continuing medical education can improve health outcomes for African American women. 

“Just to have again the white male doctor come in and even approach that conversation, to really get to the bottom of why someone might not be working out, I think is a very powerful statement and it could go a long way to increase the trust in a patient provider relationship,” Tolliver says.

Tolliver recommends that patients can try low-impact exercise at first to minimize persperation, or try protective hairstyles using braids, twists or extensions. She says patients can schedule tougher workouts on days they plan to wash their hair anyways.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.