When Black women walk, things change. That’s the belief of GirlTrek, a non-profit organization transforming lives through walking.
The organization’s mission is unique: to reclaim their health and bodies as Black women and fight systems that enable poor health — and it’s working.
Over one million GirlTrekkers have hit the streets of their neighborhoods since GirlTrek’s founding in 2010.
“GirlTrek is working to solve the interconnected public health, racial justice and environmental justice crisis impacting Black women today,” says Ebony Roberts, the organization’s impact and research specialist.
Black women are facing a health crisis, Roberts explains. While all women in the United States are more likely to die from heart disease than other causes, Black women are more likely to die from it than white women, according to Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Following heart disease, diabetes and stroke are leading causes of death among Black women. Yet, GirlTrek, which guides its members to walk for 30 minutes a day for five days per week, has seen significant health improvements.
“We’re seeing positive and consistent progress across all indicators of health, including diet changes, increased exercise levels and reduction in prescribed meds,” Roberts says.
More than half of GirlTrek members have sustained walking for more than one year and two-thirds have reported losing weight — lowering their chances of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
As an aerobic exercise, walking has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Black women are particularly at risk for mental illnesses due to stressful life experiences sometimes caused by discrimination.
A National Institutes of Health study conducted in 2013 stated that “unlike white women, [African American women’s] low socioeconomic and structural position in United States society, and their experiences of institutional racism and sexism, may provoke mental and emotional distress that can add to their vulnerability for depression.”
Some of these stressors include poor social support, problematic work issues, difficulties managing health problems, and “general satisfaction with life.”
GirlTrekkers show a marked improvement in their mental health. In fact, 90% of members who’d been diagnosed with depression reported fewer symptoms.
“This peace has made them sleep better, and the regular physical activity has improved their breathing and given them greater endurance. They can walk longer and faster without getting winded. And the sisterhood has provided them with accountability partners and daily motivation to walk, rain or shine,” says Roberts.
The organization is effective “where other public health and medical interventions have failed” because they “acknowledge the systemic racism that has made Black women unhealthy, and we empower Black women to be the solution — for themselves and their communities.”
GirlTrek acknowledges how racism in the food and healthcare systems causes health issues, for example.
GirlTrekkers come face-to-face with these disparities daily. And because they can see the impact on their communities as they stride on foot, they can do something about it.
“When Black women walk, long-neglected parts of our communities are restored because they begin to notice what waterways, trails, parks, and roads are in need of care and they act. They notice boarded storefronts and empty lots and imagine the possibilities,” says Roberts.
Over the last decade, GirlTrek has seen much health improvement and launched various campaigns, including its’ “Black History Bootcamp,” a podcast centered on Black stories and lessons from past Black leaders.
But they’re not done yet.
By 2035, they’re seeking to scale the “life-saving behavior change” of walking and extend “the life expectancy of Black women by 10 years,” Roberts says.
Correction 7/12/22: An earlier version of this article mispelled Ebony Roberts’ last name.