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Shaping Up

Linda Fondren Talks New Book “Shape Up Sisters!”

Black-eyed peas and cornbread may be good for the soul, but we all know they aren’t the healthiest dishes. Four of every five Black women are obese or overweight — a statistic that should alarm anyone.

As an award-winning personal trainer, Linda Fondren has made it her duty to combat female obesity in Mississippi, the poorest and most overweight state in America.

Fondren, 58, is the founder of Shape Up Vicksburg, a campaign to help female residents of Vicksburg, Miss. lose weight. The non-traditional, women-centered fitness center has helped the ladies of Vicksburg shed more than 15,000 pounds.

JET got the chance to talk to Fondren about her rags-to-riches success story as well as her new book, Shape Up Sisters!, a get-healthy prescription for regular people with jobs, budgets and real-life challenges.

JET: Your book mentions your sister’s health condition and its impact on getting you to start you workout endeavors. How does she, or anyone else, continue to influence you to do what you do?

Linda Fondren: A study in 2008 estimated that by 2030, 96.9 percent of Black women would be overweight or obese! For my sister, Mary, and so many of the women I have worked with, being obese means more than carrying around an unhealthy amount of body fat; it also means carrying chronic stress and regret. These women are often sidelined from participating in their own lives.

One particular comment my sister made to me on her deathbed — that she wished she had lived her life more for herself — continues to influence me to this day. I want to help women change their lives. I believe that if there is one health commandment, it is this: Exercise is the gateway to changing so many things in your life for the better. Being obese is a symptom of deeper things that need changing. Not everything is within our individual control, but when we come together to help each other in our commitments, mountains can be moved.

JET: What inspired you to turn your mission into a book? 

LF: Some years before I began writing Shape Up Sisters!, I had started writing another book, a memoir about my rags-to-riches life experience. But that book got sidelined when I returned to Mississippi and saw that not much had changed for women here.  Households led by single mothers, poverty, obesity, teenage pregnancy, ignorance, racism, lack of good role models, lack of self-esteem, and a host of others factors still kept so many people trapped in unhealthy lifestyles.

I escaped that life, but after coming back, I realized the story I needed to tell wasn’t just how I managed to succeed. I burned with the need to say something to help people, especially women. This desire led me on a mission to write a book focused on obesity prevention, to help women with struggles more similar to my sister’s than my own. My book questions our perceived norms and habits that are embedded in culture and traditions. I know people want to do better, but they need help to get started. I am passionate about reaching women and their families where they are right now.

JET: What makes Shape Up Sisters different from Zumba or some other workout club?  

LF: Shape Up Sisters is a boutique gym specifically designed for women who wouldn’t feel comfortable in a traditional hard-body gym. It provides a workout space where they can be around women who look like them and face the same obstacles. We offer women simple, fun exercises and add a social experience in an encouraging environment with support and motivation. There are no barriers; there are no men, so women don’t feel self-conscious about their appearance or less physically able.

One of the things I think that separates us is what I call, ‘We Work Out With You.’ We have personal trainers, including myself, and fitness motivators, so when women come into the gym, they do not have to work out by themselves. A fitness motivator will work out with them. Most women who come into the gym don’t know what they’re doing, or if they are making the best use of their time. Women work one, sometimes two jobs — especially here. So, their time is valuable, and they need to make the best use of it. No matter how many times they come into the gym, we show them how to work the machines and how to properly get their heart rates up because, if you’re not doing that, you are wasting your time.

JET: Will Shape Up Sisters be branching out anytime soon? 

LF: With recent national data showing that 82.0 percent of Black women are overweight or obese, compared to 63.2 percent of White women and that Black women have more than double the rates of extreme obesity over white women, my dream is to branch out with boutique gyms that make fitness easy in Atlanta, Chicago, and beyond, so stay tuned.

JET: What about a Shape Up Brothers?

LF: The most asked question from men is “what about us?” I would love to have an option for the men, and I am very interested in creating a Shape Up Families facility.

JET: What is your advice for people who say they don’t have enough time to exercise?

LF: If our commitment to exercise was as persistent as our excuses, we would all be triathletes. We have a responsibility to be honest with ourselves about why this is so. Being honest about what we’ve been up to is the first step to know what actions we need to take to change and overcome our perceived limitations. If you don’t make time to stay healthy, you’d better schedule in time to be sick. You must make your health a priority and schedule it in like you do everything else in your life that is important.

Your current health is not due to lack of time or money. It is the result of choices you have made year after year. Don’t get locked in the illusion of not having time. Practice letting go of the clock and doing what is at hand at this very moment, and a magical thing will happen – there will be more time and you will feel less confusion. The goal is to grow past where you are.

JET: What kind of influence has Shape Up Sisters had on your community since you started it?

LF: By raising awareness about the consequences of obesity, we raised hope in our community. Our influence developed through involving the community and by giving individuals and groups a stake in spreading the message. For instance, in our 4-week Bodyworks program for teens, we empowered teachers to become role models for their students. During another program called Operation Empowerment, we reached out to female heads of households in the under served community who could be role models for their families.

We took them to doctors for checkups, supported them while they pursued their GEDs, and provided them with toolkits with cookbooks, pedometers, and fitness journals to help them change their habits.

JET: What is your favorite exercise?

My favorite exercise is yoga because it teaches us to use our mind and bodies as personal transformation tools. The most common physical bad habit is unnecessary tension that has been allowed to become habitual. Good health is a gift, and through yoga I can expand the gift I have been given.