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UK’s first black fitness festival, NoireFitFest, wants exercise inclusivity

Co-creators Lorraine Russell and Donna Noble are addressing the lack of representation within fitness and inspiring people to get active with every exercise, treatment, and product

“If you think about boxing, you think of Anthony Joshua, tennis Serena Williams, and athletics Usain Bolt. A huge amount of black female and male sports professionals are at the top of their game and it’s really bizarre that it hasn't kind of translated into the fitness industry,” Lorraine Russell says. The qualified personal trainer, spin instructor, and nutritionist is right, why hasn’t it? I can count the number of black fitness influencers I know on one hand, with fingers to spare. Russell is adamant that they do exist but that inclusivity is a major problem in this space in her experience, after transforming her own body through fitness. 

That, as well as the lack of visibility of black people in the fitness industry, is the mission behind NoireFitFest, dubbed the UK’s first black fitness festival, which Russell dreamed up with yoga instructor and fellow black woman in fitness Donna Noble. What the duo have in mind is a free-to-attend day of exercise, fitness and wellness talks, products and treatments, and more in a body-positive environment for black men and women of all fitness levels.

Besides better representation, there’s also a physical need for this judging by these telling stats from Sport England’s Sport for All report. Only 56 per cent of black people meet the 150 minutes of physical activity a week recommended by the chief medical officer, compared to 62 per cent of adults in England overall. “There are a lot of issues that might prevent people from stepping into places that are designed to help people to get fitter. Cultural differences, peer pressure from certain groups, age might be a factor as well. Those are the things that we're trying to eliminate with this festival,” Russell continues.

The NoireFitFest crowdfunding campaign launched earlier this year to raise £15,000 to bring the community-led project to life. While the COVID-19 pandemic means that the event date is now very tentative, it hasn’t stopped Russell and Noble’s positive action in its tracks. “Creating online content is our strongest method of raising awareness of fitness and wellness concerning the black community at this current time,” Russell says. “Earlier this week we launched our NoireFitFest workout mixes featuring different notable DJs and we will add online homework and features for our followers.” 

Here Russell and Noble unpack their exciting plans and mixed experiences as black women in fitness.

Can you talk us through your personal fitness journeys?

Lorraine Russell: My mum’s been a fitness instructor since age of 26 and she’s still a trainer aged 65. I gained a lot of weight when I was a teenager and in uni but I was still very very active. I did ice-skating, swimming, judo and I came to realise, later on in life, that the food that I was eating wasn't correct. My brother was body-building and got into amazing shape for a competition so he put me in touch with his trainer Gabriel Sey. In 2017, he got me in shape for my first show Pure Elite and another called PCA. It took me about eight months to train for both of those shows, learning about my body and learning about food. After that, I decided I wanted to become a personal trainer to help people and it will be two years (since I qualified) next month.

Donna Noble: I started out doing athletics at secondary school: 100 and 200 metres, hurdles, high jump and relay. Then I started yoga in the late 1990s when a friend saw a picture of Madonna (doing yoga) and suggested we give it a go. Becoming a yoga teacher happened organically and has transformed my life in so many ways. I had all of the things that society dictates will make you happy but I was ill from stress. My health is now my wealth and I am so much happier.  

How did the idea for NoireFitFest come about?

Lorraine Russell: About a year ago, I was chairing a panel called ‘Black Women in Fitnesswhere women spoke about their experiences and how they differ from the mainstream norm. Donna was on the panel, she called me days later and it felt like a perfect opportunity for us to do a fitness event with all black trainers specifically to deal with trainer visibility. 

Donna Noble: I continually hear from students that they do not feel welcome in predominantly white spaces. That the instructors do not have appreciation of the difference in terms of body and culture and therefore cannot help to address their concerns.

Why is this kind of platform important and needed?

Lorraine Russell: Our inbox has been inundated with people who work in the industry and want to get involved. Black trainers who are like ‘this is amazing’, ‘this needs to happen’, ‘we should have had something like this ages ago’. Podcaster and personal trainer Kelechi Okafor, who also has her own twerk studio, knows the struggle and gave us a shoutout on her podcast.

Donna Noble: NoireFitFest can create a safe space to discuss issues that the black community face and attendees can experience the best techniques offered by black fitness and wellbeing professionals to help with stress, mental health, and body image issues. Self-care and well being should be accessible to everyone.

Judging by your experiences, what is the black fitness community like?

Donna Noble: A lot of the times I can be the only person of colour in a yoga class, holding space, and I blog to demystify some of the misconceptions and myths about yoga particularly within the black community. There is a lack of diversity because when you Google ‘yogi’ - the image is invariably white, slim, and blonde so this puts a lot of people off. By being visible more people can experience the transformation benefits of yoga. and I am pleased to see that there is an increase in events that are being held specifically for the black community.  

How do you feel that the black body is represented and perceived?

Lorraine Russell: Black female bodies are over sexualised nowadays. With the popularity of the BBL body and Instagram bodies, everyone is very focused on their rear ends and small waists. There's nothing entirely wrong with that but in order for someone to obtain that, it takes a lot of time and dedication. I'm always stressed to my clients that if you want to change from what you are now to what you're seeing on Instagram, it’s a whole lifestyle change. It's not just about you going to the gym and doing a million squats and lunges,  you have to rework the way you eat and train.

How are you smashing fitness stereotypes?

Lorraine Russell: What tends to happen with the industry is that they latch on to a particular shape, which is that straight up-and-down look, forgetting the fact that not every woman looks like that. Our festival will be focusing on body positivity and trying to make sure that especially within our community, fitness is for everybody big, small, in between, whatever the case may be. As long as you're mobile, willing and want to be in a space that promotes fitness then you should be able to do that.

Who are your black fitness icons and people who inspire you about fitness?

Donna Noble: Mr Motivator. He was the pioneer and sparked my interest.  

Lorraine Russell: My mum and Serena Williams, I love her and the way that she has turned tennis and sport on its head by winning grand slams and having a kid. Massy Arias has an incredible back story, she used fitness to help come out of her depression and now has over two million Instagram followers.

Any advice for black people interested in fitness who are struggling to be active or just don't feel represented?

Donna Noble: Find someone that you resonate with and try various activities to find one that you like. Do something you enjoy and don’t worry about your hair. Go to classes with friends so that you do not feel like you’re in the minority. It's never too late to start your fitness journey.  

Lorraine Russell: Start small. If what you can do right now is simply going out for a walk, or lifting light weights, or having a stretch, just start there and then slowly build up. Your body will absolutely thank you for it because what it does for you physically is great, but what it does for you mentally, you can't pay for that. Moving up and down is probably the one thing that is free. You can literally put on your trainers, wrap up, and go outside for a walk.

NoireFitFest is crowdfunding until March 29, donate here.