Like you know, the wellness world has witnessed a dizzy rise over the past decade. Understanding the intricacies of different schools of yoga, wearing sport kit on the street and swilling grass-toned juices went from 'niche preoccupation' to 'elements of an aspirational lifestyle.' One problem with all of this, though? A lack of inclusivity, with the 'face' of the health movement often fitting a specific – white – aesthetic.
Despite this, for Lorraine Russell, the founder of the UK's first Black-centered wellness and fitness festival, NoireFitFest, fitness has never been whitewashed. 'My mum was a fitness instructor so I grew up watching her participate in classes, watching her teach and I’d frequently accompany her to fitness weekends – [these were] held at places like Butlins, because, back then, wellness was not a buzzword,' she tells Women's Health.
While exercise was in her DNA, as often happens, when adult life took hold, her health took a slide. A bustling career in fashion styling for magazines and music videos took centre stage and fitness rapidly became secondary. As such, Russell explains: 'I got to a point in my life where I was feeling particularly unhealthy and I knew my overall lifestyle needed a desperate rejig.'
This was not 'just physical thing' stresses the founder. 'I know that for some people when they embark on a fitness journey it’s because they're trying to lose weight, which is fine. But for me, it came from a place of deep tiredness. I had zero energy. It was internal.' Although this moment set off a complete mind-body overhaul, the trainer explains that she started working out based on a 'guesstimation' of what it meant to be fit.
'I started running – a lot – alongside a huge amount of aerobics classes,' says she details. However, after a conversation with her brother – who at the time was venturing into bodybuilding – a fresh change was ignited. 'I started to learn more about nutrition. It was a whole rejigging of what I thought fitness or nutrition was, and when I finally spoke to an actual qualified trainer and nutritionist – one that was like "you don't starve yourself to lose weight" – it was like a gateway to a [new] world.'
Fast forward to 2020, and, after qualifying as a personal trainer, taking on two bodybuilding shows and embarking on a wellness-filled getaway with a friend to Turkey, where she began to speak about a big idea she was cultivating, NoireFitFest was born.
What is NoireFitFest?
While the event's debut was a Zoom-based affair, due to the pandemic, 2021's showing was in-person. The London-based festival is not only just UK’s first Black fitness festival due to its predominately Black expert trainers and panellists, but also through its centralisation of Black music, culture and celebration. The all-day fitness event is filled with varied workout sessions from hot pilates, to Afrobeat sound-tracked HITT and soca aerobics. The community-focused space aims to dive deeper than mere physical or visually diverse representation.
Meeting the urgent need for safe and culturally intelligent spaces – something that was made more evident after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement last June and the racially driven aftermath of the 2020 UEFA Euro’s – are at the heart of Russell’s mission. She explains that safe spaces within fitness are ‘vital for black people to thrive and feel good about ourselves. It's not everyday we want to watch a Black man being shot or think about navigating the feelings or questions that normally follow from non-Black people after traumatising events. There needs to be spaces in fitness that provide respite from it all.'
What is the aim of NoireFitFest?
Alongside, healing and restoration for Black people through fitness, the festival also serves as a sharp accountability call, for brands and the fitness space to be more aware of internalised bias across the industry. 'Whenever I would attend bigger fitness festivals it would always be a smattering of Black fitness and wellness pros – which is ridiculous because off the top of my head I could name countless people, with huge followings that are doing amazing work,' says Russell. Work that sadly, went largely unrecognised, prior to last June.
Even in the face of this lack of inclusivity, Russell says that during the inaugural stages of the festival, she did receive some criticism about the event's name and focus. 'Even now, we occasionally will get rumbles of how [the festival is] divisive, but this always comes from a place of willful ignorance. And to that I like to say: "I can't take paracetamol for someone else's headache." '
Besides better representation in the fitness world, and the creation of a holistically safe space for Black people who want to talk, learn about and participate in fitness, Russell has another aim: to encourage more people into the health sphere.
According to a recent report from Sport England, only 56% of Black people meet the 150 minutes of physical activity a week recommended by the chief medical officer, compared to 62% of adults in England, overall.
For Russell, this is something she aims to change through: 'Promoting the benefits of being a little bit more physically active and the importance of making better choices with food.'
When it comes to diet, the founder is keen to stress that eating well does not need to mean living off nothing but salad leaves and quinoa. 'I encourage people to experiment with our own cultural foods. You can still make the same recipes we love and which make up so much of who we are, but we can remix them to create healthier options,' says Russell.
'If you look at the wide range of recipes across the diaspora, you’ll see that so many already included whole foods, many of which by the time they reach mainstream’s overwhelming white wellness audience, are upsold significantly,' Russell continues.
This mission towards a healthier outlook on all things from food to fitness within Black communities is one that Russell says: 'Is important for me and NoireFitFest to centralise, because the focus and excitement right now be on inclusivity, but I’ve seen that fluctuate in the fitness space.
'For me, as a fitness founder, my job is to make sure that instead of waiting for a seat at the table, we build our own so we continue to have healthy thriving spaces. Because I'm not Black for a moment. I'm Black all the time.'
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