Say you’ve just ironed your hair sleek or are sporting a fresh, bouncy blowout. Do you skip working out afterward?That’s all too common the case, claims U.S. Surgeon General, Regina M. Benjamin, M.D. Speaking at the recent Bronner Bros. International Hair Show in Atlanta, Benjamin used her bully pulpit to take on the “excuse” many women have of prioritizing a smooth hairstyle over breaking a sweat in a heart-healthy workout.

In particular, Benjamin says the trend is especially prevalent among minority women. Citing a study from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in which 103 African American women in the surrounding North Carolina region were polled on reasons that prevented them from working out, a third listed hairstyle maintenance as the number one reason they wouldn’t exercise.

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“Many African American women with coarser hair use either heat straighteners or chemical products to straighten their hair,” says dermatologist Amy J. McMichael, M.D., the physician who led the study. “Depending on how coarse or fragile their hair is, they can’t just wash their hair after exercise without having to go through the whole process again, and that can take hours.”

The study goes on to state that 77 percent of African American women in the U.S. can be classified as either overweight or obese. Meanwhile, the surgeon general recommends 150 minutes per week (about 20 minutes per day) of moderate to intense physical exercise, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31.6 percent of African American women do not get any physical activity in a given month. Benjamin says she aims to get more women moving by eliminating hair as an acceptable reason to not work out. That could lower obesity rates and weight-associated health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes.

However, the surgeon general acknowledges that it’s not difficult to understand why there’s such a fuss about hair and workouts among women in the first place.“If you go out and spend $40 to $50 to get your hair done, you don’t want to go out and get it all sweaty and wet that afternoon before you got to show if off,” Benjamin told CNN. “Other ethnic groups would come up and say the same thing. I don’t think it’s limited to African American women.”While Benjamin says her solution is to work out at night so that she is home and done for the day when she’s finished, other active and fit women who have careers that demand high maintenance hair needs have learned how to strike the balance between feeling good and looking good.

Courtesy of Katie StamKatie Stam
Katie Stam

As Miss America 2009, Katie Stam often juggled intense workouts with a packed schedule of glitzy public appearances. To transition from sweat and reps to full-on pageant queen regalia, Stam would depend on two things: a cloth headband and clip-in extensions.For traditional gym workouts, Stam found that a thick cloth headband soaked up perspiration, protecting her fine hair from slicking back flat. Drinking lots of cold water and keeping a towel on hand were also key moves.Yet it was the hair extensions that made getting gorgeous a cinch afterward.

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“You can have them styled before you work out. When you finish your session, clip-in already fabulous hair that looks like you’ve spent the last several hours at a salon,” says Stam. “They are an investment, but they last forever, and no one can tell the difference!”For the fullest results, Stam keeps two kinds of clip-ins: a fuller, thicker sheet of hair, and then smaller one-inch pieces. Extensions can be styled just like natural hair, with tools like flat irons and curling rods. In fact, they hold style better and longer than natural hair.

Courtesy of Kandice PelletierKandice Pelletier
Kandice Pelletier

High-kicking up to 16 shows a week as a Radio City Rockette, Kandice Pelletier says that sweat has been a fact of her daily life for years. The former Miss New York swears by dry shampoo, citing Ojon as her favorite brand. The product can come as either an oil-absorbing powder you tap onto the scalp or in an aerosol that sprays an alcoholized version. Both drugstores and department stores sell a variety of brand options today.However, Pelletier believes that keeping it simple can often make the biggest statement. “I think there is something really sexy about a confident woman putting her hair back in a clean ponytail,” says Pelletier.

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Courtesy of Jeanine Downie, M.D.Jeanine Downie, M.D.
Jeanine Downie, M.D.

Meanwhile, running 20 to 25 miles a week and maintaining a regular routine of sit-ups, pushups, spin class and the treadmill keeps Montclair, New Jersey dermatologist Jeanine Downie, M.D. on her toes, while balancing the demands of a polished, professional image.“Many of my African-American patients say to me ‘What about your hair?’ I struggle with the same issue as them, as I perm my hair every three months,” she says. “But I would rather have a fit body and pull my hair back if I need to,” shares Downie, who adds that she uses a scrunchie instead of an elastic to keep dents out of her strands. (Who knew the 90s could come back in such a helpful way?)

Courtesy of Micaela ButcherMicaela Butcher
Micaela Butcher

After working out, Downie opts for a diffuser instead of a blow dryer to absorb dampness while maintaining style. She sometimes set her hair in pin curls at night, so that the styling time is absorbed into snooze time.And what of women for whom fitness is a 24/7 lifestyle?Braids are the saving grace for Micaela Butcher, who is a senior Core Fusion teacher at New York’s Exhale Mind Body Spa. Her days can consist of multiple sweat-inducing workouts, but she doesn’t allow that to her slow her down.“My hair texture is kinky-curly, so sometimes I’ll braid it in a fun style, so that when I’m done, I’m already good to go.”

QUIZ: How Healthy is Your Hair?