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Why your hair might be making you unhealthy

In the war against obesity, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin has identified a formidable foe: high-maintenance hair.

Too many women are skipping the gym to spare their hair, Dr. Benjamin is quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune.

In her campaign to promote health over hair, Dr. Benjamin served as honorary judge for a "hair fitness competition" earlier in August that drew 60,000 stylists to Atlanta, Georgia.

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Stylists were asked to create exercise-friendly hairstyles for low-, moderate- and high-impact workouts ("extreme sweat involved") to compete for a grand prize of $5,000.

The event focused on black women, of which nearly half are obese, according to a 2011 paper published in the Lancet.

Some black women spend wads of dough – and up to eight hours in a stylist's chair – to have their locks smoothed with hair relaxers. The beauty treatment is so demanding that according to a 2007 study done by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, N.C., one in three of black women surveyed said they were reluctant to exercise because it would make their chemically relaxed hair "sweat out," reports.

But "it's not just African-American women," Dr. Benjamin told the New York Times. "I've talked to a number of people, and I saw it with my older white patients too. They would say, 'I get my hair done every week and I don't want to mess up my hair.'"

For those who are less hung up over their hair, though, vanity can be a kick in the pants at the gym.

"While many people state they are pursuing fitness for health reasons, the truth is that these are often secondary to their desire to look better," Gordon Patzer, a professor of business administration at Roosevelt University in Chicago, is quoted as saying in the L.A. Times.

The column author, James S. Fell, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, says he's cool with vanity as a motivator "so long as you don't go off the deep end. (I'm talking to you, Heidi Montag.)"

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If only he could convince all those hair salon addicts out there.

Have you ever forsaken the gym for your hair?

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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