On Blackness, Health, and Wellness
by Jason Harrison
We’ve been conditioned to think about health and wellness as symbols of personal virtue. But this framing ignores–as popular framing often does–what it means to be Black in this country, where Black people receive demonstrably worse healthcare than white people, and what it means to be Black in a segregated city like Dayton, with its unexamined racist legacy and persistently lethal status quo.
The most important message I want to convey to you here, then, is that if you’ve been surviving this pandemic, and you’ve been surviving living in this country and in this city, then these are victories worthy of celebration–because we know that not everyone will be able to say that.
But if our goal is to do the best that we can in an environment designed fundamentally in opposition to our thriving, then it’s my job also to talk about what “the best we can” looks like. There are four categories of health and wellness I want to examine here as you look ahead to the New Year.
Mental and Emotional Health
In every city where I’ve ever worked as a personal trainer, including New York City and Washington, D.C., I've always identified good talk therapy practices to whom I could refer clients. People often hire personal trainers because they know they need a change, but I’ve found over the years that solely “getting in shape” will fail to address the underlying emotional component that can leave us feeling discontent.
I’ve had therapists during different difficult phases of my own life, and the power of the practice is that I learned tools that I’ve taken with me ever since. If you’re struggling with mental or emotional distress that you’re having trouble working through on your own or in your community, a good therapist can be transformational.
One of the shifts I think we still need to make clear societally is that intentional movement like strength training, cardiovascular exercise, yoga, Pilates, or group fitness classes shouldn’t be thought of as weight loss tools. Intentional movement is a fundamental aspect of a healthy human existence, and so we should work to adopt a movement practice not to shed pounds or fit into a white patriarchal framework of what a body should look like, but rather to understand as much about our own bodies as possible. To be strong enough to do what we need to do on a daily basis; to have the cardiovascular endurance needed to play with grandchildren or climb stairs or go hiking.
The less we link exercise to weight loss, the more of a healthy relationship we can develop with movement and our own bodies. That’s the key to sustainable lifestyle changes.
I’m not a dietitian, so as an ethical and professional matter, I keep my nutrition advice generalized. For most of my clients, I’ve found that consuming some sort of protein and vegetable at every meal (including breakfast) will dramatically improve their eating. This general advice, along with framing nutrition as addition instead of subtraction, can be helpful for avoiding toxic diet culture.
By “addition instead of subtraction,” think about that “veggies at every meal including breakfast” advice I gave above. If you think about adding vegetables to every meal, even those fast food runs or breakfast sandwich mornings can be improved by adding the nutrient density of vegetables. Eventually, as you start paying more attention to the nutrients you’re getting with each meal, you can begin to shift your relationship with food. Once again, not as a weight loss tool, but as a means for giving your body all of the nutrients it needs to function properly, including thinking and moving and having sex and finding joy.
Sleep and Restoration
If I were ranking all of these elements of health and wellness, this is the piece I really should have started with, because it makes every other aspect of wellbeing easier. Capitalism is a system that implores you to work more, to rest less, and to prioritize production over your own humanity. But as with other aspects of health and wellness, we must fight to hold onto our sense of self, and a part of that is prioritizing 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
The way to think about our days is that 7 to 8 hours is unavailable for productivity. So if you’re looking at a calendar, block off the hours of 10 PM to 6 AM (for example), and then schedule the rest of your day around that. This sounds like a simple thing to do, but think about how many times you’ve been able to be productive solely by eating into your own rest and recovery. This is a trap and a bad habit that we need to break ourselves out of.
The Aim is to Thrive, not just Survive
By nearly every health statistic available to us in the United States, the quantitative evidence indicates that being Black is hazardous for one’s health. We might not be able to single-handedly dismantle white supremacy, but by paying attention to our emotional inner life, our exercise, our nutrition, and our recovery, we can give ourselves a chance to not only survive the policy-made conditions of our existence, but also to thrive in them. One of our most radical acts of resistance has always been forcefully maintaining and reinforcing our own humanity to ourselves. And so it is with our approach to health and wellness.
Jason Harrison is a regular contributor to the Dayton Weekly News and owner of Present Tense Fitness, where as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, he specializes in functional mobility training and strength, power, and conditioning for dancers.