In the Gap: Voices from the Health Divide is a news and dialogue partnership between 90.9 FM WHYY and 900 AM WURD.

About half of African American women are obese. Black women not only carry more weight, but start piling on extra pounds years before their white counterparts.

So when does it begin, this excess and unhealthy weight?

Temple University researcher Clare Lenhart says that it starts early.

A National Institutes of Health study followed girls for a decade beginning at age 8 or 9. Over time, leisure-time physical activity declined dramatically, and the drop off for African Americans girls was steepest.

"What they found was that by the age of 17, so that's the junior, senior year of high school, more than half of black girls, and nearly a third of white girls were reporting no leisure time physical activity at all," Lenhart said.

Many girls--not just urban girls or black girls--give up regular exercise and sports in their teen years.

"They have found changes in enjoyment of activities, in peer support or social support for physical activity, they found a lot of competing interests, be it part-time jobs, or caring for younger siblings, or other family members," Lenhart said.

Experts want kids to exercise at least 60 minutes every day, but among all children, black girls are most likely to report they got no physical activity in the past week. To better understand that difference, Lenhart and colleagues are asking girls what influences their decision to exercise.

Monarch spreads her wings

Nine-year-old India Barnes is a fourth-grader at Holy Spirt Catholic School.

She does gymnastics, loves soccer and can't imagine a time when she won't make time to go out and play.

Her soccer club is the Anderson Monarchs.

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"I play striker, her job is to score, give good passes and try to help the defense," India said. "Just in case they are in trouble, we'll go back and help them."

India's been a Monarch for nearly five years. So at age 9, she's a veteran. But, early on, she stuck close to Coach Walter Stewart.

"I used to just hold his hand the whole time, then I started to get the hang of it, and I got better," India said. "It makes me feel confident.  I would like to lose a little bit more weight, to run a little bit faster."

The team is mostly African American girls from South and West Philadelphia

Two or three times a week, they practice at Smith Playground at 25th and Wolf streets. And they play games on the weekends. That's more exercise than the average U.S. girl, from any race or ethnic group, gets in a week.

"Kicking a ball, on their feet, stretching, getting warmed up. In a soccer game, at their age, as they get to be 13, 14, they are probably running three to four, five miles,"  Stewart said.

The team, which began at Philadelphia's Marian Anderson Recreation Center, gives game time to girls who have little chance to play another sport, except maybe cheerleading.

Stewart says, no disrespect to cheerleading, but "I always tell them do something to make people cheer for you, rather than you cheering for somebody else."

Stewart's been the coach from the beginning. In those 13 years, he's lost many of his players around the same age.

"Eighth grade ... that's where it gets to be difficult, they are making the transition from young kids to more teenagers, and they are more interested in boys and what boys think," Stewart said.

A longstanding concern

In the 1990s, health experts began sounding alarms about our too-fat nation, but concerns about black women and weight surfaced a full decade earlier. When the obesity epidemic hit the general population, African American women got heavier, right along with the rest of the country.

University of Pennsylvania professor Shiriki Kumanyika says obesity rates for black women started high and went higher.

"So you see this tracking. It used to be 30 percent, and white women were 15 percent. Now it's like 50 percent versus 30 percent," said Kumanyika, who studies patterns of illness and health behavior.

"As an epidemiologist, we're always kind of doing this detective work, you know, why did this happen?" she said.

Because we're all exposed to more restaurants, types of food and marketing that cause us to eat more, Kumanyika said the amount of exercise we need to balance those extra calories has risen too.

Research shows that opportunities for recess, sports, physical education--or just to go outside--aren't spread evenly among children.

"If you kind of add up those situations in urban, innercity neighborhoods where most African Americans live, they are not as available. That's been documented," Kumanyika said.

Boys are more active on their own time, but Philadelphia survey data suggest that structured activity may be the best chance for girls to get the recommended amount of exercise.

Participation vs. performance

Researchers especially like programs that value committed participation over elite performance.

Jennifer Johnson discovered the Anderson Monarchs when she was looking for an affordable way to keep her daughter, Alexandria, active.

"There's a lot of sports out there, but a lot of these clubs want $500 plus, just for a child to be on a team. And it never guarantees that they will get any kind of playing time," Johnson said.

Alexandria's 15 now and an assistant coach, but her interest dipped in middle school around age 12.

"In come the friends, and in come the extracurricular activities at school, and as a parent you really have to press on. I said to her, 'If it's not this, you will be involved in something,'" Johnson said.

Johnson took her daughter to see Philadelphia's professional-women's team the Independence to reignite Alexandria's interest, to show her that women also love the game.

"Girls look at each other, and size each other up. Oh, you're too skinny, or you're too heavy, or why aren't you shaped the way we're shaped?" Johnson said.

'It's about the fitness'

There's plenty of sisterly feuding on the team, but the Monarchs are a haven from that kind of scrutiny.

"There are girls here that are all shapes and sizes. It's not about being thin. It's not about who looks the best. It's about the running around, it's about the fitness. Twice a week they have a common playing ground, twice a week they are all the same, they have this team," Johnson said.

Alexandria also has her mother on the sidelines at games and most practices, too

Obesity researchers, who are testing some gender-specific solutions, say family support, mom's presence especially, may motivate girls to keep playing.

Taunya English will discuss this story at noon on Tuesday on 900 AM WURD's HealthQuest Live. Her story is part of a project on health in the states, a partnership between WHYY, NPR and Kaiser Health News.