Depressing Study: Exercise May Not Help Black Girls Stay Slim


Talk about depressing news—a new study by British researchers has found that even black girls who are active and exercise regularly are much more likely to become overweight than white girls who have the same level of activity.

Previous research has found that black women oxidize fat more slowly in response to exercise, and that their resting metabolic rates are lower than those of white women. Apparently the same phenomenon exists among adolescent black girls.

The new study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, raises big questions about whether the national campaigns by folks like First Lady Michelle Obama to get more kids, especially black kids, to exercise regularly will have any effect on the obesity epidemic in the black community. For white girls at age 12, the equation is simple: exercise regularly and stay slim. For black girls at the same age, regular exercise may have no effect on their likelihood of becoming overweight.

As the father of two black girls, ages 10 and 13, I am extremely troubled by the implications of the study—but in some ways I am also a bit relieved, because it explains a lot of what I have seen with my own eyes over the last few years. Both of my girls are jocks who spend hours every week running around playing fields, sweating buckets, drinking tons of water—all the things Michelle Obama says that girls their age are supposed to be doing.

There is a white girl in the house next door who is the same age as my older daughter. If this girl has done enough exercise to break a sweat at any point over the past four years, I’d be shocked. She has no interest in exercise, even less interest in organized sports. In addition, this girl thinks vegetables are part of a conspiracy created by adults to poison children—she doesn’t touch the stuff. Yet…this girl is reed thin, while my girls are constantly struggling with the pounds. On the soccer teams and softball teams and Girl Scout troops, I see it over and over again—girls who are all doing precisely the same amount of activity, yet the white girls are skinny and the black girls are verging on chunky. It has always caused me a great deal of consternation trying to figure out whether we were doing something wrong in our house. Why weren’t our girls also reed thin at 9 or 10 or 11 or 12?

The authors of the study, James White of Cardiff University and Russell Jago of the University of Bristol, wrote that the metabolic differences between white girls and black girls “may predispose black girls to retaining fat accumulated during puberty.”

“Our results suggest that prompting adolescent girls to be active may be important to preventing obesity but that using different approaches (e.g. emphasizing reductions in energy intake) may be necessary to prevent obesity in black girls,” they continued.

In other words, with black girls it’s probably more important to focus on getting them to eat fewer calories, because once the food has been consumed, their bodies are going to burn it off much more slowly than white girls. The researchers studied 1,148 adolescents, nearly half of whom were black. The racial differences were incredibly stark—when they divided the girls into two groups, those who were very active and those who weren’t active at all, the 12-year-old black girls who were in the active group were only 15 percent less likely to be obese by age 14 than the girls in the less active group. But the white girls in the active group were a stunning 85 percent less likely to become obese over the next two years.

This is game-changing stuff for anyone who cares about the health of black girls and black women. While we need to ensure that our girls exercise so that they will be as healthy as possible, we also need to be paying a LOT more attention to what and how much they are eating if we really want to cut down the obesity and overweight rates. Because the things we are doing right now aren’t working—not when four in five black women are overweight or obese, according to body mass index (BMI) measures.

As unpleasant as it may be to grapple with our daughters over the contents of their plates, we have no choice—we must engage them. Reduce portion size, keep junk food out of the house, get them to drink more water instead of sugary drinks and sodas—we have to do it all. And yes, get them to leave the house sometimes for exercise so that they will develop healthy habits that remain with them the rest of their lives. Diet and exercise. The keys that unlock a healthy community—a fact that will never change.


1. My Kid Ran Her First 5K—And Inspired Her Mother To Get Moving
2. Daddy’s Little Jocks
3. {Dr. Ivor Is In} Obesity, Exercise and Black Girl Hair: What We Teach Our Daughters
4. It’s In the Jeans, Not the Genes: Understanding—and Curbing—Childhood Obesity

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I know for myself at my highest weight I was exercising regularly and it did nothing as far as weight loss. It wasn’t until I started 3 hour sessions per day and eating next to nothing that I dropped pounds. Once I stopped that craziness the pounds came back on. But exercise certainly does help with all of the diseases usually blamed on weight. I’m not convinced of a connection between the two and there are studies out there that say they are not connected. I will never harass my child about his weight. I will go all out to keep him active and feed him healthy foods (and raise him to make good choices). Depending on that or genetics he may or may not be slim, but I’m not buying into the hysteria about weight so it doesn’t matter. I live by Health At Any Size, I think that is the right way to go for me and my family and I will do whatever I can to shield him from this country’s crazy obsession with weight.

  2. Nick, really? I am so surprised that you let them get you with this so-called “study.” Of course, it would appear that exercise is ‘less’ effective if you consider the measuring stick that is being used to determine what is considered obese. There is most certainly a racial bias against Black women with regards to weight and weight standards. Unless I misunderstood, this article states that both white teen girls and black teen girls in the study both exercised the same amount and had the same calorie intake but by age 14 the black teens were more likely to be obese – but are they obese, or just considered obese by someone else’s standard? I am willing to bet the farm it is the latter. Shame on you for buying into this crock of malarkie!

    • Thank you, Sonya.

    • We can grasp tightly, desperately, onto this thinking that our bodies are different and that these BMIs only apply to white people, but where I live down here in Georgia, I am SURROUNDED by black people who are fat. Not thick, not big-boned. Not slightly above the (white) BMI limit for overweight. No. FAT. Spend five minutes in any black community in the South and the extent of the problem, the need for alarm, is staring you in the face. A clear majority of our community is much, much too big. What this study does is help us figure out some of the reasons for this. We can ignore these reasons if we want and continue to tell ourselves that our bodies are just different…and we will watch another couple of generations of our children and our girls grow up to become morbidly obese adults who spend their lives fighting the fat AND a long list of health problems. I want my girls to be as healthy and beautiful as I expect every other parent does. I want them to love themselves and their bodies. Along with my wife, we emphasize the need to eat and be healthy in or home—trying very hard not to impose some American pop culture obsession with thinness on them. But they aren’t blind—they see the difference between their bodies and the white girls who surround them. I am grateful for any assistance from the medical and scientific community that’s going to help both me and them understand how their bodies work. So as a family, we can concentrate on limiting caloric intake as much as we work on keeping them active and healthy.

      • No one disputes that there are people in the black community (like most American communities) who are overweight. The issue I take with this so-called study and similar studies, is two-fold – first, the need to constantly compare whites and blacks and second, that there is built-in racism with body mass indices that is never acknowledged. The long standing medical, scientific wisdom/advice is that healthy eating habits and exercise equals healthy bodies. This article starts with the premise these teen girls in the study ate healthy and exercised but some how were still more likely to be obese??? That doesn’t give you pause? It does for me. There is not one mention about the standard for what is considered obese. If the teen girls are consuming the same number of calories and exercising the same (as the article says) but come up with different results then why not ask the question WHY? Why not look at the BMI? Why not question ANYTHING else. Clearly blacks and whites are different, we know that – through the constant obsession over the need to compare us for everything under the sun. But to rest at some ridiculous conclusion that exercise “helps less” is just a waste of a scientifiic experiment and asinine. Come on really?!

        Further, if your girls really are ‘jocks’ and exercise as much as you and your wife suggest, and if you all are making healthy eating choices – believe me your girls will be fine. Maybe not “skinny” by American standards fine. But heart healthy fine. And high self esteem fine. And probably long life fine. While this neighbor of yours – well if we follow scientific/medical wisdom/advice — she likely has some challenges ahead.

        and P.S. I am a thin black woman, even by so-called American standards and have never struggled with weight. But I think this article and similar ones is toxic to our community and I really felt the need to weigh in.

  3. I’m sorry….I can’t get past you describing your 10 and 13 year old children as ‘struggling with the pounds’ and asking ‘why aren’t our girls reed thin’. WTW?

    Look, if your kids eat healthfully and get plenty of exercise, what’s the problem?

  4. The type of metabolic variation that you’re citing also exists within racial types, ethnic groups, but most importantly, even within the same families.

    I feel that its probably a mistake to ‘racialize’ healthy living issues, considering Americans of all stripes are far heavier than they were just a generation ago.

  5. There are three kinds of lies: lies,damned lies, and statistics. Studies an be designed to prove anything, and the underlying assumptions of the study can lead to a certain conclusion. Statistical BMIs are great guides and not absolutes. I’m not even going to try to get into the specifics of this study, but there are some absolutes that you can bet the ranch on.
    1) Regular excercise is essential to good health. More exercise is better, and there is a correct way to excercise, and if you don’t know, ask somebody.
    2)Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. Eating meat doesn’t necessarily make you fat. But starches and sugars will kill you, and be assured, they ARE killing us.
    3)Negative body images are devastating to adolescents, none so much as with young African American girls. Reed thin is fine, but it’s not everyone’s reality, or ideal.

  6. Thanks for this post. This is a hot button issue between my husband and I for our 7 year old. He wants me to deny her food and give her ever decreasing portions because, like the children in the study, she is solid bordering on chubby. I know that she is eating healthy (we don’t keep junk food or soda in the house) and she is very active yet she is not as thin as her peers. I don’t want to make it a bigger issue for her than it needs to be however, at the same time I don’t want to ignore the potential for concern. The study you site offers some explaination for why this is. The challenge is what to do with it. I too question whether the BMI ranges are right for every group but there doesn’t seem to be much other information available.

  7. When I was a child, we didn’t get lots of milk, nor did we have access to manufactured snacks. We did have a typical southern diet, but only the adults got to eat the hambone and biggest pieces of chicken. Homemade cobbler in the summer, and not enough for seconds, mind you. We didn’t get to eat junk food until our teens. I stayed under or at my optimal BMI until I became pregnant. I regained a normal BMI within 7 months post-partum (due to exercise and breast-feeding). I am packing on the pounds post-menopausal without an exercise routine, but I am saying all this to say: 1) Treat McD’s and BK as if they were death traps – they are. 2) Do not give your children cow’s milk. 3) Do not have snacks stocked in the home…if it’s there, they’ll see it and eat it. 4) IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO CHANGE YOUR DIET HABITS, unless your dead!

  8. 40 years ago this wasn’t a problem. There were tons of slim black women. In fact If this study is true, how come there are so many slim women in different countries in Africa. I call this study BS.

  9. This is nonsense. What it is is that white cultures tend to be consumed with keeping their daughters thin as hell thats their ideal. Most black women live in Africa and they very slim, petite but curvy. I think they need to stop criticising everyones weight i havent seen as many obese black kids as i have white kids. Most kids overall are normal sized so where is this coming from. This is clearly bullcrap. Your weight is down to your diet plain and simple. Your race has nothing to do with it.

  10. Supposedly the BMI was never meant to be applied on a massive scale. The waist to hip ratio is supposed to be a more reliable measure of health. hip fat on a female is considered healthy, but excessive abdominal fat can signal a predisposition for health conditions like diabetes. The father who wants to limit food to his 7 year old is also disturbing. Abdominal muscles in children are growing and are not mature. They may often portrude and give a pot bellied appearance and this has nothing to do with fat. Nutritional deficiencies in childhood can also be devastating on long term health and development, so I’d recommend that he consult a doctor, nutritionist, and have labs done to determine her vitamin levels before he starts denying her sustinace at a VERY critical age.
    Also consider African american women and some other WOC can have more bone mass than white women, hence slightly smaller effects of osteoporosis later in life, and/or more muscle. Some native Americans for example still posses “barrel chested” ribcages. All this can lead to a less waif-ish appearance even when you have the same fat percentages. If you can’t lose fat to get that same long and lean appearance, you have to start to lose muscle and bone mass too.

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