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Associated Press
U.S. Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas was criticized by some people for her hair style.

Hair contest encourages black women to exercise

In addition to those two gold medals, 16-year-old Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas got something else in London: flak about her hair. Social media sites buzzed with slams that her bun was unkempt, and questions about why she didn’t get her locks done.

A flood of defenders quickly responded that her style was a practical choice for someone flipping all over the place. And it brought attention to the fact that, unlike Douglas, some black women shy away from physical activity because they’re worried about messing up their hair.

“They say, ‘I just spent $250, so I’m not going to sweat it out,’ ” says Elgin Charles, star of VH1’s “Beverly Hills Fabulous” and an expert hairstylist who tried to help change that attitude by hosting the third annual Hair Fitness Competition at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show in Atlanta.

Sponsored by UnitedHealthcare, the contest is designed to get hair professionals thinking about exercise-friendly styles. Whether it’s an updo, a weave or braids, the key to winning is finding an attractive look that women can maintain no matter how often they want to raise their heart rates.

“The hairstyle isn’t the only reason people aren’t exercising. It’s one,” says Reed Tuckson, chief of medical affairs for UnitedHealth Group, who was joined at the competition by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and the Washington Mystics’ Ashley Robinson. “But we have to take away any barrier we can.”

Tuckson says this barrier is particularly critical among blacks, whose percentage of obesity is higher than that of other ethnicities.

Enlisting an army equipped with scissors and combs has another potential benefit, he says. Some women may not see their doctors much, but they’re likely to get their hair checked out several times a year (or month). If they’re hearing the right messages while getting snipped and styled, that’s bound to lead to better outcomes.

“What an opportunity to make them literally deputies in our work,” says Tuckson, who envisions a nationwide network of exercise-friendly certified salons. For the past year, UnitedHealthcare has been running a pilot program in Wisconsin that trains stylists in how to encourage their female black clients to get active and watch what they eat.

Interest builds

There’s certainly interest. When Charles offered a “Stylin’ Healthier Futures” class in Atlanta over a recent weekend, it was so popular that he had to turn people away.

After doing hair for 26 years, and talking to women about absolutely everything going on in their lives, including health scares and surgeries, it seems only natural to Charles to take on this role. “They believe in you, and trust in you,” he says.

And when clients aren’t talking to him, he says, they’re talking to their friends: “One woman will say to another, ‘I’m walking because Elgin got me into this hairstyle.’ ”

That’s a trend Charles is happy to be responsible for. He can work magic behind a chair, but the clients who take care of their bodies always look even more fabulous.

Buns, wraps

A short, spiky and spunky look by Linette Battle of Palm Beach, Fla., took home the top prize at the Hair Fitness Competition, which attracted more than 50 competitors and 1,500 spectators.

But that’s just one style that’s suitable for fitness, Charles says. Lots of looks can retain their shape with proper care. Charles recommends wrapping up hair in a scarf while you exercise, blowing it dry to remove moisture and then taking the wrap off.

You’d want to use that trick if you went for the “infinity knots” style, which Atlanta stylist Jason Griggers used to win the 2011 Hair Fitness Competition. “It’s a roping technique that looks like a figure 8 pulled on its side,” Griggers says. “Because all of the hair is pulled into place, it’s zero-maintenance.”

When clients want something simpler, Griggers suggests a tight chignon (a kind of bun). “It’s easy and looks decent,” he says.

Opting for natural styles can make it easier for black women to be active, but Charles has tips for those styles, too. “When you exercise with braids, the edges can start coming out,” he says.

“With dreads, you need to use certain oils and waxes, and twist them at the bottom so they grow uniformly.”