An Interview with Dr. Miriam Nelson on Women’s Strength, Nutrition and Successful Aging

There’s a lot of anecdotal-based advice out there on how we should or should not eat, how to exercise, etc. But we really want good advice to be evidence-based, founded by sound scientific methods. So, we asked an expert researcher on female health, Dr. Miriam E. Nelson for her insights.

Dr. Nelson is currently the University of New Hampshire deputy chief sustainability officer and director of the Sustainability Institute.  But while previously at Tufts University she was the Director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition. She’s written several books on the theme of “Strong Women”. These books and the work she performed at Tufts have helped women to shed the shackles that aging has to be a normal process of physical decline, osteoporosis and other forms of mental and physical deterioration. With proper exercise and nutrition, some of the deteriorating processes of aging can be mitigated or even reversed.

Leading by example, Dr. Nelson is the quintessential strong woman. In addition to rigorous research; book writing; speaking engagements, appearing on TV shows such as Oprah, The Today Show, and Good Morning America ; she is an avid mountain climber, and mother of 3 children, and a marathon runner.

We originally interviewed her back in 2004, but those pearls or wisdom are as true today as they were then, here are excerpts from that original interview.

“…we’re all going to age, but let’s do it in positive way.”

FitCommerce: Dr. Nelson, you have distinguished yourself in the field of exercise and nutrition, especially as it pertains to women, of all the career choices out there, how did you happen onto this one in the early days?

Woman Lifting Weights

Dr. Nelson: My interest in the general filed of physical activity and good nutrition were fostered at a very early age, I was always interested in health and physical activity, I was physically active myself and I had parents that fostered it.  I also always loved good food.

There was a freshman undergraduate nutrition course at the University of Vermont where I attended that was everything. It was science, health, and real world and extremely interesting and that was what got me going.

As for specific work with women, strength training and the like, that was fostered through the graduate work that I started at Tufts University.  A lot of it was serendipity with some early projects where my mentor suggested that nobody has really looked at exercise, bone and women. All of that got me going in a new field. I’ve been very fortunate.

The title of several of your books include the words “Strong Women”, the central theme is strong, which implies physical strength, was there an epiphany in your professional life where you observed a correlation between strength and better women’s health?

I’m not sure it was an epiphany as much as it is good, solid scientific thinking, and building upon previous studies, looking at the literature, taking some risks in doing some research in an area that no one had thought about before with women that are 50-70 doing high intensity strength training. So, the epiphany came when the results bore out what we had thought. That is, women can get very physically strong, get much healthier, gain muscle, lose body fat, and gain bone, through a simple intervention.  The epiphany came with the results, I’d say.

You’ve focused on both physical fitness and nutrition, the diode. This implies an important connection between the two, are there observable synergies between physical fitness and nutrition?

Very much so, they really go hand in hand, one without the other makes the glass half empty instead of being completely full. If you eat well, but you’re a total slug, totally sedentary and not fit, you’re going to be at risk for many of the chronic conditions that are out there. Mind you, you’re going to be better off than if you ate poorly and you’re a slug.

Proper nutrition is equally as important as exercise for women’s optimal health.

If you also exercise and eat really poorly, you’re not going to be maximizing the impact of the hard work that you are doing. When you add the two together, they both mutually feed off of each other.  A body that’s exercising needs to be well nourished and a body that’s well nourished can exercise well, and then you’re going to be so much healthier.

“So, we have gathered more information about the importance, especially as you grow older, of strength training for older adults.”

When you looked at nutrition, how did you select what food groups to look at? Did you make assumptions about their health benefits and seek corroborative evidence? Or was it purely serendipitous?

The work we did was more large scale population work, so we’re not dealing with food groups or individual nutrients, it’s more, we wanted to know how can we, within a community, or a town, or a state, actually get people to change their eating habits, their behaviors, so that they’re eating more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and less processed foods, so it’s more at the macro level.

Dr. Nelson, we were  hoping you could weigh in on fad diets that have become so popular in the U.S., are they beneficial or harmful?

Where these general diets are helpful is that they really bring up the fact that a lot of the carbohydrates that people are eating right now are poor. They’re highly palatable, really cheap, and very caloric. We’re talking about juices, drinks, and snack foods, pretzels, chips, cookies, and convenience foods and highly processed grains.

We, in the nutrition community, have known that these foods are really contributing to the increase in caloric intake. The plethora of these foods that have been produced, have never been there before.  These popular diets have rightfully brought that up.

However, they have vilified all carbohydrates — whereby fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are really good for you.  People now are very confused to the point where they don’t know what a carbohydrate is.  They don’t realize that oranges and broccoli are carbohydrates. So, there’s a good part about elucidating the problems with  refined carbohydrates, but they throw the ‘baby out with the bath water’ and that’s problematic.

There needs to be a better understanding so people realize for long term health, like cancer prevention, heart disease, eye health, you need fruits and vegetables. You cut those out and, yes, you may lose weight and even you cholesterol might go down, your Triglyceride level definitely will go down, but, it’s at the point where, long term, if you don’t have the fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, you may be increasing your risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, and many others.

Did Tufts do any research in regard to successful aging?

Yes, in fact that’s what most of the research was about.  Whether you call it “successful”, or “optimal”, or other terms with the exception of “anti-aging”.  That term is just awful, we’re all going to age, but let’s do it in positive way.  Both exercise and nutrition play a large role.

Your department at Tufts has made positive statements about the value of exercise and in particular, resistance training, can you expand on the benefits you’ve observed?

We’re one piece of the research that’s been done in the field of aging. So, it’s just one piece of the puzzle.  Where we have contributed, not just myself but other colleagues,  is that we have been the first to show the real importance of muscles as we grow older and it seems so obvious now, in the early 1980’s there wasn’t a lot of focus on muscles as we grow older.

 

“Both cardiovascular and strength are critical because heart disease is the number one killer of women, so we want to be working their heart as well as their muscles.”

It really came about by colleagues in our lab doing work in long term care facilities and realizing that these people were frail and weak and that’s one of the reasons they were so dependent on others’ care.  When you start thinking about frailty and weakness, you then start thinking about combating that which leads you to start thinking about resistance training and strength training.  Through a series of research studies, we’ve looked at the effects of strength training on body composition, muscle, bone, strength, frailty, function, type II diabetes, depression, sleep, osteoporosis, congestive heart failure, and arthritis.

So, we have gathered more information about the importance, especially as you grow older, of strength training for older adults.

Resistance training takes many forms, there is gravity-created, such as free weights and selectorized machines, and there are stretch bands, and there are pneumatic and hydraulic resistance machines. From your view of the data, does it really matter what type of resistance one gets to derive benefit?

I think it doesn’t really matter in the end.  By far the greatest impact is just doing it regularly and having a good program and then also making sure that you’re targeting most of the major muscles groups, and that you’re doing at an intensity that is high enough so that you get benefits and that you’re doing it in proper form.

There are a lot of machines out there which older adults, because of range limiting issues, because of initial weakness, they have difficulty on some machines, not all. The better machines within any category are really fine.

“Both cardiovascular and strength are critical because heart disease is the number one killer of women, so we want to be working their heart as well as their muscles.”

Dr. Nelson, if you had a deconditioned, sedentary women that was only willing to commit a few minutes each day to improve her health, what are the top 2 or 3 must do exercises you would have her do?

I would first want to know what her goals are and expectations that she is willing to commit to. Then I would try to get her, at least twice a week, maybe 20 minutes of strength training, to get at perhaps 5 different muscle groups: core, arms, and legs.

Then I would try to get her to do some brisk walking so she gets cardiovascular. Both cardiovascular and strength are critical because heart disease is the number one killer of women, so we want to be working their heart as well as their muscles.

We’ve talked a lot about women, does any of your research spill over to men’s health?

They’re completely applicable to both men and women. It’s just that men have a larger base of muscles and strength to begin with, so it’s not as critical for men as it is with women. It becomes critical for men 10-15 years later than it does for women. Issues around bone, frailty, falls, are issues that affect more women than men.  20% of men are going to get osteoporosis compared to 50% of women. It’s important to both groups, it’s a matter of relativity.

About Miriam Nelson:

Dr. Miriam Nelson

Dr. Miriam E. Nelson is currently the University of New Hampshire deputy chief sustainability officer and director of the Sustainability Institute.

Nelson is the author of 10 books, including the New York Times bestselling “Strong Women Stay Young” and eight others in the “Strong Women” series.

In August 2001, Dr. Nelson appeared in her own PBS special entitled Strong Women Live Well, which focused on the benefits of exercise and nutrition for women’s health. She has been featured on many television and radio shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, Fresh Air, and the Discovery Channel.

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