Chris Rock made fun of women who refuse to swim or exercise.

It was a case of three entrepreneurs getting together and doing something great to combat the obesity problem, and to build community.

The community: beautiful, historic Asheville, North Carolina. The entrepreneurs: Stefanie Williams, owner of Stefanie’s Hair and Beauty Design Studio; Elaine Robinson, executive director of the Asheville-Buncombe Institute of Parity Achievement (ABIPA), and Pete Longo, owner of Anytime Fitness.

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Salon owner Williams held a weight-loss challenge, her third, to help her mostly African-American clientele and employees lose weight and control their diabetes and blood pressure. The first two times she held the contest, only about 20 women enrolled, and were left to their own devices when it came to weight-loss tactics.

This time, however, Elaine Robinson heard about the contest while at Stefanie’s getting her hair done, and immediately went about the business of enhancing Williams’ effort through ABIPA. Robinson contacted Longo, and next thing you know, Anytime Fitness gave each participant a free, two-month membership, which included nutrition education. Enrollment doubled in Williams’ fitness challenge, with 42 competing nine weeks for a $500 prize. Even Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy signed up.

The winner lost 30 pounds and 5.7 percent of her body fat.

I read about these folks in a story in this morning’s Asheville Citizen-Times, and just had to make some calls.

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“I just went where the momentum already was,” says ABIPA’s Robinson. “First, Stefanie is enthusiastic, she is a professional stylist and a God-fearing woman who runs a first-class shop and has real strong relationships with her customers. Second, I saw an opportunity where ABIPA could help. They needed the tools and access and resources around them, and that’s what ABIPA was able to bring to the table. Third, this gentleman, Pete. His generosity of opening up his gym to them for two months was amazing.”

Longo, of Anytime Fitness, says he enjoyed having the competitors there. “I knew we could service them well, and it was a really cool idea that they started this grassroots program on their own,” he says. “There’s something special about a group dynamic that keeps them motivated.

“These women really charged the atmosphere of the club,” he says, adding that for the first, time Williams’ contest was able to switch from pounds lost to the more important body-fat percentage. “We’d love to do it again.”

Now you know we can’t talk about black women working out at the gym without addressing hair, which a high percentage claims as their reason for not exercising at all.

“We need to just change our mentality about health,” says Williams from her salon. “We want to be healthy, but the hair issue is keeping us out of the gym and out of the pool. But (the participants) just made up their minds to be healthy.”

To maintain her own style, Williams says every other week she wraps her hair in a doobie, then exercises with the scarf on. Other weeks, she’ll cornrow her hair at night, workout in the morning, then undo the braids after her shower, ending up with a wavy set.

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Robinson agrees that the contestants simply got over their hair issues. “The figured it out,” she says. “They worked around what was a major issue, and who better than Stefanie to help them? Who better than your own stylist?”

Williams says now other clients are anxious to enroll in her next contest, which begins in August. “The people who saw the results last time, they want to enter.”

Wonderful.

A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.  ~  Henrik Ibsen

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Leslie J. Ansley is an award-winning journalist and entrepreneur who blogs daily for TheRoot. She lives in Raleigh, NC.

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