Beyond fit

Posted: June 10, 2014

TOO many black women are fat.

Don't get angry.

I'm only quoting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which says that roughly 80 percent of African-American women are either overweight or obese.

Back in 2011, Deneen Young was no exception to this sobering statistic. She carried a whopping 264 pounds on a 5-foot-tall frame. But I'm happy to report that, since that time, she has dropped a whopping 146 pounds and radically changed her lifestyle.

She works out six days a week. She also leads a walking group at Sharon Baptist Church and teaches spinning at the Kaisermann JCC, in Wynnewood. Yesterday, she planned to complete her eighth half-marathon, the ODDyssey Half Marathon, in Fairmount Park. She's training to complete her first full marathon - 26.2 miles - this fall.

Young, 49, credits her turnaround in part to Black Girls Run!, an organization started in Atlanta back in 2009 to encourage fitness among African-American women. When Young joined, the local group had maybe 75 members.

Young, who has since become a run coordinator and group ambassador, estimates that roughly 7,000 active and inactive women could be counted among its ranks now.

"Black Girls Run! has helped save my life," Young told me, speaking with the zeal of a convert.

As we chatted about her lifestyle change, we walked along one of her favorite running routes, on Kelly Drive. The miles piled up as Young talked about her journey from nightly munch-offs to becoming a lean, mean, running machine.

Couch to track

Young grew up in a two-parent household in Pennrose Park where fitness wasn't a priority. After graduating from West Catholic High School in 1983, she briefly attended Penn State University before enrolling at Community College of Philadelphia, where she studied business and met her future husband.

They married in 1990, had two children - KaMichael, now 18, and Katelynn, 13 - and settled into a house in Overbrook Park. Young began working a series of administrative assistant jobs at various hospitals before winding up as an assistant to the Upper School director and assistant registrar at Friends Select.

Meanwhile, without Young really noticing, the pounds piled on.

Concerned doctors and relatives tried to intervene, but it wasn't until her uncle confronted her in 2011 that she finally got serious about her weight.

Surgery, then struggle

To kick-start her efforts, she underwent a vertical sleeve gastrectomy at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, which removed a large portion of her stomach. Patients typically are advised to exercise and follow nutritional advice to get the best results.

After dropping about 40 pounds, Young began to get up before dawn to walk around the track at St. Joseph's University. Since she still weighed more than 200 pounds, it was a tremendous struggle.

The first time Young managed to trot all the way around - maybe moving at a 14-minute-per-mile pace - she cried.

Then a woman at her church who'd been reading her Facebook posts about her efforts told her about Black Girls Run! The first time she showed up for a workout, Young almost gave up.

"I remember my friend saying to me, 'Deneen, we got you. It's all right,' " Young recalled. "I remember everyone saying 'No woman left behind.' That's our motto."

Group leaders patiently instructed her to jog to one of the many light poles in the park and then to slow walk to recover before resuming running. They took turns trotting along beside her, offering advice.

Before long, Young was running on her own and leading an early-morning meetup herself. These days, she runs three days a week, bicycles once a week and also takes the D.A.M. Boot Camp class taught by fitness trainer David Miller a couple of times a week. Young also meets with Miller monthly for one-on-one training.

The result is a banging body with firm biceps and tight abs. She doesn't even look like her before pictures.

"I'm just amazed at how she's come along," said Dawn Angelique Roberts, a longtime organizer of the Philly chapter of Black Girls Run! "She's just a great example for anyone interested in becoming a runner."


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

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