The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated fundamental changes in people’s everyday lives. For example, social distancing measures drove changes to individuals’ fitness routines, leading to the popularization of home workout equipment such as the Peloton spin bike and treadmill. Part of Peloton’s growing ubiquity is likely due to the social aspect of its platform and the sense of community many users feel through the use of hashtags and Facebook groups based on shared interests and identities. As a sociologist, I am interested in how fitness not only improves health, but also provides spaces for belonging. For example, a study published in 2016 about women who participate in Zumba reported that it had a range of benefits, including serving as a means of socialization and camaraderie. Social circles focused on physical activity can nurture fitness engagement and help people stay motivated to achieve their health goals.
In an effort to reduce stress and re-create a gym environment during the pandemic, I started taking some of Peloton’s cycling and treadmill classes at home using their mobile app. Some of my favorite treadmill classes are those taught by their instructors who are Black women, including Marcel Dinkins, Kirsten Ferguson, and Jess Sims. In large part, I connect with these instructors because I rarely saw people in fitness I could relate to while I was growing up. When I discovered their classes I thought, “Finally! Some runners who look more like me!”
This was an especially welcome discovery given the homogeneity of the running community. When I started running recreationally in graduate school about a decade ago, I quickly noticed a trend: as a Black woman, I often found myself, as one of my research respondents so aptly put it, as a “chocolate chip in a sea of milk.” As others have noted, recreational running—in particular, distance running in road races—tends to be an overwhelmingly white activity both in the United States and internationally. In theory, running should be one of the easiest sports in which to participate—it does not require a gym membership, expensive equipment, or fancy apparel. Due to its accessibility compared to other forms of fitness, recreational running has grown exponentially in the past several decades. Many middle-class people probably know someone who has participated in a 5k race or other running event due to their widespread proliferation.
Rooted in part from my personal experiences, I conducted a sociological study of Black middle-class women who engage in recreational distance running. I was particularly curious as to how these runners find their place in a predominantly white sport. I wondered, how do Black women runners view themselves and how is their engagement affected by their status as minority participants? From a sociological perspective, having a reference group—defined by Tamotsu Shibutani as a “group which serves as the point of reference in making comparisons or contrasts, especially in forming judgements about one’s self” —is important for being able to envision yourself as able to find success in particular occupations, activities, and, in this case, fitness endeavors.
One theme that emerged in the research interviews I conducted was that joining running groups—specifically, running groups for Black women—helped participants to feel a sense of belonging in the sport. One group that many participants in my study belonged to is Black Girls RUN! (BGR), which has thousands of members among dozens of local chapters across the United States. Most of their organizing and communication is done via social media. Mia*, 51, spoke of the importance of BGR’s online presence when I interviewed her:
“It’s just nice to see people of color moving, and it’s nice to not be the only person. Running has opened so many doors for me. In addition to BGR, there’s the National Black Marathoners, Black Runners’ Connection…I travel for races and you start seeing some of the same people and you’re all friends. I would’ve never met these folks if it was not for social media.”
Social scientists have written about other running groups created to foster community among people from marginalized groups, including the Clydesdale Runners Association for larger runners, and the Front Runners, which is a running club for those identifying as LGBTQ+. When 40-year-old Kourtney started running with BGR, she said she was pleasantly surprised that the group existed:
“It’s encouraging because in the past, you would do a race and you wouldn’t see anybody that looked like you, seriously, and in Lewisville…that was the first time I’d seen so many Black people running. I’m like, ‘Oh my god. Where are you guys at normally?’ Then Duncantown, the half [marathon], I was amazed. They had a huge BGR group there.”
In her interview, Kourtney emphasized how encouraging it was to realize there was a chapter of BGR in her town. She ultimately took on a leadership role in her local chapter to lead evening jogs with other Black women.
As BGR states in its mission statement, one of its goals is to “create a movement” that combats the preponderance of chronic illness Black women are disproportionately subjected to, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Several of the women I spoke to in my study said part of what drew them to this group was the desire to change health statistics and challenge dominant narratives about Black women.
For example, 38-year-old Tyra said in her interview:
“…for me it was important to be around other women of color because of those same stories—that we don’t exercise. We don’t swim. It’s, you know, because I know we tend to be caretakers and we put ourselves last. So to be around women who wanted to kind of break out of that kind of trend or that legacy that we tend to inherit from our mothers was really important for me.”
Groups such as BGR are important for promoting a sense of comfort and empowerment among people who did not grow up seeing other people of their racial group engaging in particular sports and fitness activities. For individuals in the Black middle-class who are often one of few Black employees at their workplaces, these types of groups can provide a reprieve from feelings of isolation experienced throughout the day.
It is not only important to capitalize on opportunities to create community during the pandemic, a time when it may be more important than ever, but also in a post-pandemic future—especially for the most marginalized members of society seeking to find safe, inclusive spaces to engage in leisure sport and health-promoting activities.
*names of all research participants and locations changed to protect anonymity
Alicia Smith-Tran is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Oberlin College. Her research and teaching interests include topics related to medical sociology, aging & the life course, the intersections of race, class, & gender, sociology of sport & leisure, and qualitative methodology. You can follow her on Twitter @aliciasmithtran.