While first lady Michelle Obama has encouraged exercise through her "Let's Move" campaign targeting childhood obesity, the spark for this current interest among black women may have been comments last year by Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who observed publicly that women must stop allowing concern about their hair to prevent them from exercising.
Some black women visit salons as often as every two weeks, investing several hours and anywhere from $50 to hundreds of dollars each visit — activity that, according to the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association, helps fuel a $9 billion black hair care and cosmetics industry.
In an interview during a health conference in Washington recently, Benjamin said the damage sweat can inflict on costly hairstyles can affect women's willingness to work out, and she hopes to change that. She goes to beauty industry conferences to encourage stylists to create exercise-friendly hairdos.
"I wouldn't say we use it as an excuse, we use it as a barrier," Benjamin said. "And that's not one of the barriers anymore. We're always going to have problems with balancing our lives, but we could take that one out."
Parker, an actress who starred in "A Streetcar Named Desire" on Broadway earlier this year, understands this dilemma well. Out of personal frustration over maintaining both her workout and her hair, she created "Save Your Do" Gymwrap — a headband that can be wrapped around the hair in a way that minimizes sweat and preserves hairstyles.
"Not just as a black woman, but as a woman, since the beginning of time, beauty has been our responsibility," Parker said in an interview. Because of that, she said, exercise has become linked with vanity instead of health.
"We've turned exercise into a weight-loss regimen," Parker said. "No. Exercise is about being grateful for the body you have and sustaining the life you have. ... Take all the hype out of the exercise and think of it as brushing your teeth."
With their mutual family histories of diabetes and high blood pressure in mind, Carey, 28, and her sorority sister Ashley Hicks, 29, co-founded the running club Black Girls Run. Carey also considered it a new beginning after a bad breakup and a move across country. Since 2009, Black Girls Run has amassed 52,000 members who serve as a support system for runners.
Black Girls Run has about 60 groups nationwide that coordinate local races in Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C, Houston and Greensboro, N.C. Most groups run at least five times a week. Next month, the national running club will take its first "Black Girls Run — Preserve the Sexy" tour to cities with high obesity rates. The tour includes health and fitness clinics with information on nutrition, hair maintenance and running gear.
"We found that when you want to get healthy and when you want to be active, it's intimidating," Carey said. "You don't know where to start. There's a little coaxing that has to go along with that."
Parker said once African-American women place value on their bodies and longevity, everything else will follow. It costs her nothing, she said, to walk around an outdoor track with her husband, actor Boris Kodjoe, or run up and down stairs at home with her headphones.
"One good step breeds another one," Parker said. "You're going to have one less margarita, one less scoop of macaroni ... and yet you're not doing anything fanatical or dramatic."