Well Woman Weekly: T’Nisha Symone on Centering the Black Experience in Fitness & Self-Care

T’Nisha Symone is the Founder and CEO of BLAQUE Inc., a luxury fitness platform created to serve the Black community. As a personal trainer for years in environments that were often not accessible or culturally resonant for Black people interested in fitness and wellness, T’Nisha has created that space with BLAQUE, incorporating movement of the mind, body, and culture through exercise, nutrition, and self-care coaching. BLAQUE’s digital platform and new fitness and wellness app addresses racial health disparities and lack of accessibility and representation for a fitness and self-care program that is aligned with the Black experience.

Could you set up a bit about your experience as a trainer in a luxury fitness space, and how that drove you to create a different type of experience for Black folks who want to work out and be well?

So I started off doing one-on-one coaching in luxury spaces. There were a few things that in the moment I didn’t realize, but were so significantly a part of my experience, like navigating being the only person that looks like you in a space. I had become accustomed to that, but it didn’t make it okay. At one point, I was the only Black woman on a team of 30 trainers. There was one other Black person on the team. As a coach, there were a lot of moments where we were definitely feeling separate from others. We were also working in midtown Manhattan, so I realized a huge gap in life experiences between myself and many of the clients. There is also the work of fitness and wellness: I always positioned it as being the fullest version of yourself. Being able to operate at your highest potential comes from being well. It was powerful to see how I could impact my clients: how they show up as parents, their lives at work, their relationships, and then working with them on how to eat, aiding their recovery, and supporting their goals. 

When I started to work more with people in my neighborhood (I was raised in Jamaica, Queens), that’s when those differences in accessibility became super clear. I was training them in a club that didn’t have close to the level of resources as the midtown club. Fitness facilities that are cost-friendly, close to you, and enjoyable can seem like a luxury, but those should be a priority. The disparities in wellness and health between Black and white communities demonstrate this. A lot of these things became even clearer after I started working on BLAQUE. I had already had the idea and I  went into the locker room at the gym where I worked, and had this moment of recognizing that I couldn’t use the things there. I had been there for five years, and I couldn’t use the shampoo; when I used the moisturizer it didn’t work on my skin. What it showed me was that we were not the focal point of this place. Black needs weren’t really being met. That was one of those big turning points for me, because I realized how hard it is to find a place where you are centered as a Black person and you’re not the afterthought or a box to check after you’ve already taken care of your core clientele. 

Last time we were in touch, you mentioned the importance of having a “safe space” when it comes to fitness and wellness in general. We spoke about this in the context of a gym, down to the details of the hair products in the locker rooms. But what does this look like in a digital space?

During the journey of pivoting to an app, we spent the most time thinking about making sure it addressed the issues of accessibility, inclusion, and [racial] disparities. I think it’s about cultural resonance. We created this acronym to describe exactly how our platform and all our services center the Black community, and we call it playing the “BLAQUE C.A.R.D.,” which stands for Cultural resonance, Accessibility, Representation, and Disparity addressing services. Cultural resonance addresses which aspects of the Black experience have made practicing fitness and wellness more difficult. Some of these things have to do with allostatic load, for example, which is a measure of physiological stress that is linked to a ton of chronic illnesses. And this stress is higher in Black people, specifically highest in Black women, than it is in anybody else.

When you’re going to work with a client, you have to know who that client is and what their needs are in order to be able to serve them. And a lot of fitness platforms don’t necessarily think about who the Black client is in a collective sense, and how they’re going to serve that client. So if I know that Black people have higher physiological stress than other groups of people, then I have to approach training those people differently. I can’t just throw the same kinds of programs at them without considering certain societal barriers which may make it more difficult to adhere to them. I have to build in specific stress management services. For example, we saw specific barriers to certain people being able to adhere to a program and that directly informed how we changed the program design. We realized a lot of people who are in this specific group aren’t able to stick with what we’re doing because they’ve got all of these other responsibilities that most places or most fitness and wellness services aren’t really addressing.  

Cultural resonance is also about acknowledging the experience and making sure that’s built into the coaching design, reflecting elements of our culture, like music that you regularly listen to. And representation is literally seeing yourself and your culture reflected in what you see on the app. 

Something you had touched upon was the importance of people in Black communities gaining physical and financial access to luxury fitness. Can you speak to the accessibility, both geographic and financial, that comes with the BLAQUE brand and app?

As far as accessibility, what I really focused on doing here was creating a platform that was effective, because I also think that that’s something that’s been missing. And in order for BLAQUE to be able to help Black people live their best lives through fitness and wellness, which is our mission, we have to make sure that the coaching design is something that is actually going to help people accomplish their goals. 

The way I went about the design was very much the way I’ve coached people one-on-one.  I basically use the knowledge I’ve gained from coaching people over the last 10 years to create a more templatized coaching experience, so that when they use the app, it’s like a fitness and wellness coach, instead of a platform where you go to access classes. You take a quiz, and it sets you down a path for self-care or stress management, nutrition coaching, movement coaching, or fitness. That service generally costs over $100 per session to work with someone. That’s really not what’s possible for the majority of the Black community. But with the app we can reach more people than by launching a brick-and-mortar facility. Right now the price is hovering at $49.99 a month. If you compare it to working with a personal trainer, which is about $800 to $1,000 a month, it’s less than one percent of the cost. It’s a program that is designed to get you somewhere. 

Can you expand upon the self-care coaching in the new BLAQUE app? How does the practice of self-care intersect with the fitness program? 

Certain health disparities, like cardiovascular disease, which keeps Black and Indigenous folks as having the shortest lifespan in this country, can be addressed through lifestyle factors. Our coaching lowers the risk of those illnesses plaguing the Black community because it’s curated for the Black community. 

The app provides a comprehensive fitness and wellness program. We use principles of behavior change to develop lifelong habits. Each member will have a habit in each category for a month, in movement, nutrition, and self-care. For example, your habit for self-care (this will be based on your questionnaire) could be 60 seconds of deep breathing before bed. The goal is for you to be 80 percent successful with the habits you’re given, and then the next month you’ll have new habits which build on the last. Your movement, or exercise program, is also connected. You’re able to see how consistent you’ve been within each category. But often with Black women, it’s self care that falls by the wayside. We want to make sure that’s positioned at the same level as nutrition and movement. If you’re burnt out and don’t have these practices, it won’t work. 

The way that we implement mental health practices on the app is through morning moments: Every member will receive a two-to-five minute audio offering in the morning, which can look like a guided meditation or inspirational message specifically about wellness, and is delivered based on their quiz results. These are  specifically designed to address a lot of harmful societal messaging around Black wellness that have been barriers to us as a community. 

I noticed that BLAQUE’s content, and you, have taken periodic breaks from social media. How does rest factor in for you when you’re in the midst of the fitness industry, which almost never seems to take a pause?

It’s everything about “no pain no gain” and grind culture that I can’t stand. I love discipline and hard work, which are required for you to accomplish anything at all in life, but we are made a certain way: The body will break down if it doesn’t have time to recover. Your body doesn’t develop muscle unless you rest in order to build it back up. We’re not made to go without stopping. 

The breaks that I’ve taken have actually been really hard, because you do experience all the pressure to continue to do x, y, and z, especially with a startup in certain phases. I’m grateful that I do take time for meditation and journaling. When I took a recent break, a lot of great things came out of it. I was able to create something new during this pandemic; the industry is changing and my community needs it. It comes down to being super present and aware of your “why.” If I want to help people, then I need to do whatever is required to make sure I can produce, rather than appearing to be present all the time at the expense of my ability to do good. It’s just important to recognize that you will not be able to thrive continuously without some sort of built-in self-care practice.

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