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To win black consumers, fitness industry using a touch of soul, hip hop and gospel

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NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Up against the odds, Elaine Green is calling on a powerful ally to help stay fit: Jesus Christ.

A recent evening found the 51-year-old Green at First Baptist Church in downtown Norfolk, shimmying and sliding her way to physical fitness as gospel pulsed in the background.

``Amaaaazing grace,'' _ left leg up, and down.

``How sweet the sound,'' _ step left, step right.

``That saved a wretch, like meeeee,'' _ and squat, two, three.

By the blood of the lamb, she's gonna win the battle of the bulge.

The fitness industry is spicing its offerings with a touch of soul, promoting hip hop yoga workshops, gospel aerobics classes and black fitness gurus to woo black consumers _ a group for whom the fitness fad has long flopped.

Keen-eyed marketers have observed how black community groups tailored music and dance to pique fitness interests, then mimicked them.

``They found there was a niche audience to tap into,'' explained Keecha Harris, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

That's because nationwide, black waistlines are expanding. One 2002 study by the Centers for Disease Control found 78 percent of black women ages 20 to 74 were overweight, with more than 50 percent qualifying as obese.

Solutions are showing up on store shelves and TV screens. At Wal-Mart, Benita Perkins' ``Taking It to a Higher Ground'' DVD sets step aerobics to a background of Kenny Bobien and other popular black gospel artists. On the black-aimed TV One network, fitness guru Donna Richardson Joyner sets brisk workouts to live R&B.

And from New York to Los Angeles, hip hop yoga classes like the one Arizona-based Ian Lopatin teaches entice blacks who prefer trying the ``downward facing dog'' position set to Snoop Dogg.

``It has roots in their culture,'' explained Lopatin, who tours the country teaching. ``If you're doing yoga to Tupac, it doesn't seem so foreign anymore.''

Tailoring health messages to blacks is a commonsense response to an obvious market, said Lucille Perez, a health director with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In the past, she said marketers didn't see any value in expanding beyond white consumers.

``It doesn't take a rocket scientist to say if we are a population that is disproportionately obese ... why wouldn't I develop a market and market to this population,'' she said.

But packaging fitness for black consumers comes with challenges. They've tended to shy from organized exercise, with reasons rooted in everything from job demands to historical perceptions of labor, said Shiriki Kumanyika, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the mid '90s, Kumanyika was struck by suggestions that blacks weren't exercising. Ten group interviews later, she arrived at some surprising conclusions.

Of the 53 men and women surveyed, many viewed exercise as excess work that could do more harm than good. Some thought it would aggravate high blood pressure and add to stress _ already running high for many blacks.

The 53 overemphasized rest, some calling sleep even more important than exercise. That ``rest ethic'' goes back to slavery, Kumanyika explained.

``Stories that are passed down through generations are that people were brought here and forced to work,'' she said. ``It's kind of logical to think that the idea of not having to do this physical labor would be something that would be valued.''

Respondents also thought blacks worked disproportionately strenuous jobs and therefore got enough exercise during the day.

Said one who was surveyed, ``Most jobs we've got are going to work in jobs like janitors ... we're going to work ourselves to the bone.''

Surprisingly, that thought pattern held true even among desk workers, Kumanyika said.

``People might think of themselves as hardworking people to come home and rest,'' she said. ``In fact, their jobs may be sedentary.''

But for many black Americans, failure to exercise comes down to priorities and exposure, said John Grant, executive director of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta. The group's yearlong health challenge promotes exercise among black men by providing pedometers and encouraging fitness goals.

Grant argued that exercise hasn't historically been emphasized in black homes, and that exposure to things like pricey gyms often is limited. Many blacks, he said, are focused on economic survival, making regular exercise ``not one of those things that are high on our priority list.''

Incorporating a cocoa Jane Fonda look-alike and a few James Brown tunes changes things.

``If you can see a reflection of yourself as part of that, one becomes more inspired,'' said Grant, who watches Richardson Joyner's show. ``They may be exercising to music I like or that is more culturally attuned.''

Back at First Baptist, Tuesday night gospel aerobics class resembles a cozy family reunion.

The 15 or so women warm up to hip hop before shifting into a gospel-driven version of the electric slide. Moments later, they break into groups and take turns at exercise devices set up around the room. In the center, one clutch of women hoots ``Go Lula, go Lula,'' as another furiously whips a hula hoop around her sturdy waist.

All are black women. All are at risk for obesity. And all are trying to buck the trend with a little bit of soul.

``It's a cultural thing, a gospel thing,'' explained 70-year-old Rebecca Brown. ``I just can't stop coming.''
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