Spelman volleyball (Spelman Athletics)

(Special to The Root) — When we at Spelman College decided this year to discontinue our participation in intercollegiate athletics, we were not rejecting sports, or even competition — just the limited benefit that our NCAA participation offered a few student athletes in favor of a program of activity that would support lifelong fitness for all 2,100 of our students. Why was that so important?

If the health status of African-American women is an indicator of the health status of blacks living in America, the news is not good. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44 percent of black women over age 20 have high blood pressure. Type 2 diabetes has become a public health epidemic, and African-American women are among the most vulnerable, more than twice as likely as white women to develop diabetes.

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Black women are more likely to suffer from ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, breast cancer and stroke and to die from them — early. All of these illnesses are linked to obesity and lack of physical activity.  

About four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese, and among all children, black girls are most likely to report getting no physical activity in the past week. A National Institutes of Health study found that by the age of 17, more than half of black girls were reporting no leisure-time physical activity at all.

Poor diet and lack of exercise are literally killing us and shortening the lives of the next generation. We need an intervention — a wellness revolution!

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We've seen the impact of educating black women before. Let me take you back to 1881. When Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles, the founders of Spelman College, traveled through the South after the end of the Civil War, they found an illiterate community of former slaves in desperate need of education. Recognizing that a community of educated women could be transformational, they set a literacy revolution in motion when they opened their school in 1881.

Now, 131 years later, another literacy revolution is needed in the African-American community — wellness literacy — and a community of educated women can again be transformational.

The need is urgent, and it is our population — young black women — that is among the most at risk for negative health outcomes. Committed to educating the whole person, mind, body and spirit, we have an opportunity to change this epidemic. Ending intercollegiate participation may seem counterintuitive, given our focus on physical activity, but instead of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars transporting a small number of athletes to intercollegiate events, we will be investing those dollars in intramural programs and wellness activities that can be sustained for a lifetime.

Consider the physical activities that most adult career women continue beyond college: tennis, golf and swimming; walking and running 5Ks and 10Ks; and fitness classes like Zumba, Pilates and yoga. The intent of our wellness program is to transition our students from high school sports to lifelong fitness. Just as we develop the habits of the mind — developing critical-thinking skills that will be used for a lifetime — we want to develop habits of the body that will support healthy living for a lifetime.

We are taking this opportunity seriously, through the development of a creative wellness program. Students are already participating in activities like aqua aerobics, Zumba, fitness walking and yoga, to name just a few. There is a chapter of Black Girls Run meeting weekly on our campus, and we are embarking on an effort to create a state-of-the-art health-and-wellness program that is incorporated into our mandatory physical education curriculum so that it will touch every student.

One barrier to progress on our campus is our facilities. Our physical education building, Read Hall, built in 1950 when our student population was just 500 students, no longer meets the needs of a campus of 2,100 students. We are raising funds to renovate and expand Read Hall, a $13 million project, to house a state-of-the-art fitness-education program that will benefit all of our students, not only improving their health outcomes but also preparing them to be wellness champions in communities beyond our gates.

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Fortunately, our students don't have to wait for that Read Hall expansion to start improving their health. New wellness activities are already under way and will be sustained while the building is under construction.

This new direction at Spelman offers an effective and affordable model of health-and-wellness education that can be a model for all of our colleges and universities. Just as our founders forged a new educational path for black women, today we are forging a new wellness path, one that will lead the way to better health for this generation of students and for those whose lives they will touch. The wellness revolution is one that we can all participate in, and one that we desperately need.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., is president of Spelman College in Atlanta.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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