In a dispiriting finding for African American girls and women, a new study finds that while engaging in high levels of physical activity is a good bet for preventing obesity in white adolescent girls, it does not give their black peers the same benefit.
The study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that among black adolescent girls who moved the most at age 12, obesity at age 14 was nearly as likely as it was for those whose activity rates were far lower.
For white girls, by contrast, regular exercise at 12 appeared a nearly sure way to head off obesity at 14. That finding held, even when the calorie intakes of an African American youngster and her white counterpart were the same.
The authors, a pair of British researchers using data from a government health study that followed American adolescents for several years, said their findings pointed to a significant metabolic disadvantage for African American girls hoping to maintain a healthy weight. They concluded that “obesity-prevention interventions may need to be adapted to account for the finding that black girls are less sensitive to the effects of physical activity” than their white sisters.
In the national effort to stem a crisis of obesity in the United States, the state of African American women stands out as a particular challenge. At 39.4%, their rate of obesity is the highest of any single ethnic or gender group measured. Four in five black women are overweight or obese when measured by the most widely accepted gauge of fatness, the body mass index, or BMI.
The study, which draws from a database of 1,148 adolescents, is the first to explore differences between white and black girls’ physical activity rates and their effect on weight. (Just under half—538—identified themselves as African American.) But it falls in line with research that finds black women oxidize fat more slowly in response to exercise, and that their resting metabolic rates are lower than those of white women.
For 28-year-old Toni Carey of Norfolk, Va., co-founder of the national running group Black Girls Run!, that harsh reality compounds an already challenging situation for African American girls. When Carey took up running to improve her health, she said her mother’s “first reaction was, ‘That’s something that black people don’t do.’ She said, ‘Your uterus is going to fall out’ and all sorts of things.”
In African American households headed by a single-parent struggling to feed kids on a limited income, she said, “if you have to eat off the dollar menu, that’s what you do.” In others, she added, family cooking traditions that emphasize less healthful foods and food preparation can be difficult to change.
Beyond that, “if you aren’t seeing your peers out there running and exercising, or you hear them say, ‘I don’t want to mess up my hair,’ it’s more than likely you’re not going to engage in that physical activity.”