RICHMOND, Va. (NewsNation Now) — A small running group founded in Virginia is now inspiring change in the lives of Black women across the country, and the organization’s CEO is leading by example.
Jay Ell Alexander, CEO of Black Girls RUN! (BGR!), knows from personal experience the health challenges that women in the African American community face. Founded over a decade ago, the organization encourages Black women to make fitness and healthy living a priority in their lives.
After experiencing headaches, weight gain and high blood pressure in her early 20s, Alexander decided to focus on fitness rather than prescription medications to solve her health issues.
“I signed up for a 10K in Richmond and the rest is history. I just fell in love with running. I mean, how it made me feel, just all of the relationships I built, the community, and that’s how fitness really became a priority in my life,” Alexander explained.
Despite a childhood rooted in athletics, Alexander’s weight “ebbed and flowed” with life events and changes.
“I lost weight for my wedding, I’d lose weight for this activity but it wasn’t a lifestyle,” she said. “It was more so for just one-off events.”
She started running in 2010 but faced new challenges when she became a mother.
“I got pregnant with my first child 2019, I was still super active… but those last couple of months, weight really started coming on. I tipped the scale at over 304 lbs., literally 12 hours before I went into labor,” Alexander said. “It was a hard time taking that weight off. It took over a year and I’ve dropped over 115 pounds since Sept. 2019.”
Founded in 2009, BGR! takes into account that many women, especially mothers, put their own health on the backburner. It’s particularly critical for Black women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four out of five African American women are overweight and face disproportionate rates of some preventable diseases.
Focusing on Black women is about changing the “disparities and generational health epidemics that have been impacting the Black community for so long,” according to Alexander.
“It’s not a divisive tactic at all, we really are… building community, sisterhood and unity but we focus in on Black women because that’s where the highest disparities are within the Black community,” stressed an impassioned Alexander, “but especially… in regards to cancer, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Black women are at the top of the charts.”
With a footprint in 32 states boasting 75 running groups and over 250,000 members, the organization provides resources to a spectrum of experience — from beginners to “ultra marathoners.”
There are 190 ambassadors that encompass local leadership crews and run coordinators that greet you on your run. Novices can sign up for the “walk before you run” program that take newbies from the couch to a 5K. For the more advanced, BGR! offers help in refining running technique and run coach certification.
As a working mom, Alexander advises “you can’t pour from an empty cup, you have to make sure you’re at an optimum level” and “if you’re able to invest that time into yourself — you’re a better person, you feel better, you’re able to do what you can.”
The organization welcomes all women from different backgrounds and Alexander stresses ” … it’s going to take all of us in this fight against these health disparities in are impacting the Black community but we want to bring awareness to these issues in our community so thats where the name Black Girls Run came from.”
Karen Anderson, who leads the Richmond city chapter, told NewsNation affiliate WRIC that it’s important for people to see Black women running.
“It’s a myth that women of color don’t exercise, but this shows that we do,” Anderson said.
Women can reach out through BGR! website for resources and community support.
Alexander recommends a good pair of shoes and granting yourself grace in the journey to fitness.
“The first step is doing a mental check, making sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and understanding this is not something that is going to happen overnight and you’ve got to be in a good positive mindset to understand not every day is going to be a good day,” warned Alexander.
“This is a journey, and it’s going to be a process, you have to take it a day at a time. And your journey is your journey, it’s at your pace you can’t be in comparison with someone else,” she said. “Understand your journey is going to completely unique.”