|FitCommerce.com: Dr. Nelson, you have distinguished yourself in the field of exercise and nutrition, especially as they pertain to women; of all the career choices out there, how did you happen onto this one in the early days?
Miriam 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.
What transpired through my education was dyslexia. I had a lot of difficulty in reading, but I was very good at science, so I naturally gravitated away from the reading, the English, and the social studies, toward science.
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 here at Tufts. 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.
"Physical fitness and nutrition really go hand in hand, one without the other makes the glass half empty instead of being completely full."
FC: You had mentioned "good food", is your definition of good food what stimulates the palette or good food meaning health wise?
MN: Both. Good nutrition is physiological and it's also very social. Nothing can beat eating a good meal with a great group of friends or family. I'm a big advocate of whole foods and back to basics and staying away from processed foods.
FC: The title of your 6 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?
MN: 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 can with the results, I'd say.
FC: You're obviously involved at Tufts, can you summarize what your department does, explain their charter?
"…childhood obesity is huge…"
MN: I'm the Director of the John Hancock Center For Physical Activity And Nutrition and we have a couple of scientists and a number of support staff, we do 3 main things: research, which right now pertains to mid-life women's health which is what I do. But also we're dealing with childhood obesity, issues around bone health and early childhood years. Those are big topics, childhood obesity is huge.
In addition to research, we do dissemination, so we have different ways in which we try to get the information out into the public through books, through websites, and through newsletters. We feel it's important to get the results of the research out into the bigger world.
And then those of us in the center are on a number of advisory panels, so we help to change public policies, so it's really about research, dissemination, and public policy.
FC: The impact of "policy", is that at national level, state level, or local level?
MN: It's both national and state and to some degree, international.
FC: Your department focuses on both physical fitness and nutrition, the duplex. This implies an important connection between the two, are there observable synergies between physical fitness and nutrition?
"When you add nutrition and exercise 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."
MN: 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.
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.
FC: When you look at nutrition, how do you select which food groups to look at? Do you make assumptions about their health benefits and seek corroborative evidence? Or is it purely serendipitous?
MN: The work that we're doing is more large scale population work, so we're not dealing with food groups or individual nutrients, it's more, "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.
I have a lot of colleagues here at Tufts at large who are looking with randomized control trials at different lipids, at vitamin C, calcium, vitamin D, antioxidants, all sorts of different nutrients and proteins. We're looking at it much more at the population level.
FC: Dr. Nelson, I was hoping you could weigh in on this whole Atkins/South Beach diet phenomenon that has become so popular in the U.S., is it beneficial or harmful?
MN: First of all, both of those diets are quite different, it's important not to necessarily lump the two of them together. Where these general diets are helpful, both Atkins and South Beach both do it, 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.
FC: Does your department do any research in regard to successful aging?
MN: Yes, in fact that's what most of the research is about. Whether you call it "successful", or "optimal", or other terms with the exception of anti-aging. The term "anti-aging" 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.
FC: 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?
MN: 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, but in the early 1980's there wasn't a lot of focus on muscles as we grow older.
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 then 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.
FC: 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?
MN: 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.
"We do see some health clubs where the machines are simply not appropriate for an older adult."
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.
We do see some health clubs where the machines are simply not appropriate for an older adult. Most of the major manufacturers, Keiser, Nautilus, Cybex, they all make really good equipment that can be used with this age group.
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