Why the UK’s First Black Wellness and Fitness Festival Remains as Necessary as Ever

·5-min read

Lorraine Russell first had the idea for Noire Fit Fest before George Floyd’s murder, before a single black square was uploaded to Instagram and before people marched through the streets to plead Black lives matter. Before all of that happened though, her idea – to stage the UK’s first Black Wellness and Fitness Festival – was met with stony silence by brands and potential partners.

“I wrote to a lot of brands to support in some sort of way and I just got radio silence,” Russell recalls. “After that incident happened, I had a lot of brands come to me and say 'We really love what you're doing and maybe we could support in some way' and I just think it's really a bit odd that it took the death of a man for brands to be like, we're ready to work with you now. It shouldn't actually have to be that way, but sadly I know brands tend to jump on whatever is the hot thing of the moment, but being black is something that I am every day, it's not a hot thing.”

12 months on and Noire Fit Fest’s sophomore event has just taken place. Due to Covid-19, last year everything took place over Zoom, but this year’s event was also an IRL affair. Russell says that without the momentum the George Floyd tragedy provided 2021’s event was more difficult to arrange, but the problems that Noire Fit Fest is trying to solve are still there, and the festival remains as necessary as ever.

According to Sport England’s Active Lives survey, just 57.7 per cent of Black people aged 16 or over are classed as ‘physically active’, which means that more than 40 per cent of Black adults are doing less than 150 minutes or more of exercise each week. Currently, 64.6 per cent of white Britains pass the 150-minute mark.

While the numbers are there for all to see, the context behind those figures is more obscure. “I think typically people will think Black people are just lazy and what have you,” says Russell, “but it's just so far from the truth.” Socio-economic factors certainly play their part – according to the Office for National Statistics Black people make up 3.3 per cent of the population but account for 6.2 per cent of the population who have never worked or are long-term unemployed – as do cultural differences. Fitness may also take a back seat in Black people’s lives because when your existence is in question, there’s just not enough time in the day to fit in a CrossFit workout too.

“Typically when people think about fitness and wellness,” says Russell, “they know it's important, but when you've got all of these other things that you need to deal with then becomes less and less of a priority, and it's not until it's too late, when something really bad or drastic happens when all of a sudden the penny drops, and by that time I guess it gets a little bit difficult.”

Still, Black people’s issues with fitness don’t begin and end with inactivity. For Black trainers and fitness professionals, there’s also the feeling that they’re pushing up against a glass ceiling.

“When I started to connect with Black fitness influencers, who have really huge platforms and are running very successful businesses, they would say to me that when they get invited out by brands to come to certain events, it's almost like they're literally the only Black person in the room,” says Russell. “To me, that doesn't make sense. If there's loads of them, why is there only one person represented? It's almost like it's the one-person-in-one-person-out policy.”

When Russell speaks about these issues, she speaks with authority. She’s been the only Black trainer in the room, and like some of the people she hopes to see at Noire Fit Fest, she too has experienced times when fitness wasn’t the be-all and end-all.

Growing up, Russell says, she participated in everything from judo to ice skating, but as she passed through adolescence the amount of physical activity she did fell and the amount she ate rose. By her mid to late 20s, she says she felt “sluggish,” “slow” and instinctively knew her health was an issue.

Russell’s response was to get educated. She reached out to her brother’s bodybuilding trainer, Gabriel Sey, and signed up to compete in a bodybuilding show. “I had to kind of revamp my whole way of working and my whole mindset,” she says.

Previously working out to her meant running, but under Sey’s tutelage Russell was introduced to weight training and began to get her diet in check. At the same time that she was preparing for her inaugural bodybuilding show, she also started studying for her personal training qualifications. “What I was learning in theory, I was also doing in practice and the things Gabriel was getting me to do made more sense,” she says.

Two bodybuilding shows and two fitness festival later, Russell is taking what she’s learned and sharing it with a part of the population mainstream fitness appears to have forgot. At this year’s festival, there was yoga and dance classes, HIIT, combat training and panel talks on how Black fitness and wellness businesses have navigated the Covid and BLM world, as well as a talks on how IG culture informs our training and diets.

But Russell has much bigger ambitions for the festival in future.

"I actually have people in my DMs from America and from Canada saying 'this is such a great initiative I wish they did something like this here'," says Russell. "I would love to take the brand worldwide and I'd love to pass on the message to Black people that we need to take care of our health a lot more."

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