As a teenager, Miriam Nelson had a competitive
drive that sometimes silenced common sense, a scary combination for
a topnotch skier, gymnast, and equestrian. In her typical cut-to-the-chase
style, she explains: I didnt have self-preservation instincts.
As proof, the woman who would one day author a book titled Strong
Women, Strong Bones ticks off the number of fractures sustained
in those years: toe, foot, arm, back. Tough on her parents, no doubt,
but that ability to push the envelope was an early intimation of how
the adult Nelson would follow her dervish nature to a career every bit
as demanding, exciting, and edgy as a day at the meet.
During her UVM years, when Mim Nelson 83 shifted focus from athletics
to academics, she did so with passion, a commodity the nutritionfitness
guru possesses in maximum dosage. A researching-writing dynamo, wife,
and mother of three children with a to-do list extending to 2006, she
says, I was lucky to find my passion early in life.
Now an internationally respected expert, Nelson handles her rare scholar/celebrity
status with ease, creating a wide awareness of the messages in her Strong
Women books and strongwomen.com Web site. Both lucidly interpret
scientific research on womens fitness and nutrition for the lay
audience. Apparently fearless in the face of center-stage experiences,
she embraces every medium in getting out those messages. Shes
appeared on Oprah, Fresh Air, CNN, The Today Show, Good Morning America,
and countless other shows. In August, 2001, she hosted her own PBS special,
Strong Women Live Well.
Rachel Johnson, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,
who has seen Nelson in action at a UVM alumni event in Boston, attests
to the alumnas audience-riveting prowess. It was absolutely
packed, and she just engaged the audience, Johnson says. Shes
truly a credible scientist no faddism, no quackery yet
she presents information in a way that inspires people.
For Nelson, once-upon-a-time began at UVM. The school kindled a new
passion in the once Olympic-bound equestrian and set the stage for her
to reorder her universe, she says. But, it was an epiphany that almost
Nelson was the only one of her classmates at Tatnall Day School in Wilmington,
Delaware, who did not go on to college immediately after graduation.
Instead, she continued to compete on an equestrian team. But soon she
began to doubt the wisdom of her path and decided to join her brother
Joe 79 at UVM. Still, sports had a strong hold on her, and Nelson
admits that skiing was a good part of Vermonts attraction. It
also proved a necessity for someone with a high-dosage daily requirement
for physical activity. I skied a lot, probably four or five days
a week, she says.
Bruce Miller 81, a friend since the two were fourteen, was studying
accounting and also spending a fair amount of time on the mountain.
We came close to burning out on downhill, he says with a
laugh, especially because of the cost. There were no student passes
then. Not to be denied, the two switched to cross-country skiing,
and Nelson also took up long-distance running. (She ran the Boston Marathon
in 1984 and is training to run it again in 2004.)
But, without the daily rigor and goal-focus of equestrian training,
Nelson was in want of a new direction. I was totally lost for
a while, she says. But then I took the intro nutrition course
from Lyn Carew (now professor of animal science). By the second class,
I was totally enthralled. It was science but related to human biology,
public health, and everything I was interested in.
Carew says he was delighted to have a first-year student so interested
and so full of energy. Nelson pleaded with him to do research
to do more, anything, she says, and Carew found a place
for her in the metabolic unit of the College of Medicine. Nelson says
she still has the scars from rat bites to help her remember the experience.
She carries only good memories, however, of Betty LaGrange, research
associate professor, whom she describes as a wonderful, nurturing
first mentor. LaGrange, now retired, recalls Nelson vividly. She
was one of my very best students, so personable, really an ideal student,
the kind you always remember, she says.
Despite that glowing assessment, Nelsons achievements owed more
to her love of learning and determination to succeed than to academic
ease. From early on, she struggled with reading comprehension. I
didnt focus well, didnt do well on tests.
it was a severe attention deficit, she says. But,
she adds with a certainty that invites no doubt, I always had
a voice, an opinion.
Nelson compensated for her learning disability by steering toward the
sciences, in which she excelled, and she graduated magna cum laude in
human nutrition and foods. In the end, she says, UVM
was a great experience. It was there for me.
WEIGHT AND WEIGHTS
Nelsons interests coalesced in graduate school at Tufts University,
where research by Dr. Walter Frontera was challenging the accepted wisdom
that loss of bone and muscle strength was inevitable as people age.
Taking a clue from the way young athletes trained lifting weights
almost at their maximum ability Frontera had his older subjects
(men in their sixties and seventies) work at 80 percent of their capacity.
Their positive results changed lives and scientific understanding.
Beginning with her doctoral dissertation, Nelson turned her attention
to strength training in women, and later, as a Tufts faculty member,
she became lead investigator in numerous related studies. Seeking to
disseminate her findings beyond the Journal of the American Medical
Association, where shed published in 1994, Nelson made up
for her years of struggling with the written word by becoming a publishing
whirlwind. Strong Women Stay Young (with Sarah Wernick), published
in 1997, sold more than a half-million copies in the United States alone.
Like her four subsequent books, it provides easy-to-follow exercise
programs that can be done at home or gym.
Its in her second book, Strong Women Stay Slim (also with
Sarah Wernick), that Nelson gives probably the clearest reason for her
devotion to womens fitness: Behind the epidemic of overweight
in the United States is another epidemic that has gotten very little
attention: the weakening of American women, she writes. A
recent study of 10,000 women age 40 to 55 found that more than a quarter
of them were so weak that they had difficulty with everyday activities.
Throughout her work, Nelson makes a comprehensive case for linking the
The weakened state of women is an outgrowth of dieting, inactive lifestyles,
gender, and age, Nelson says. Women are more vulnerable in all these
categories and easily fall into a predictable and depressing pattern.
Around age 40, women begin to lose bone and muscle mass, and, as a result,
many slow their activities, become weaker, gain weight, and begin the
infamous cycle of dieting and weight-gain rebound in which more muscle
mass is lost.
As clearly as she defines the problems in her books many of them
through the personal experiences of her research participants (some
in their 80s and 90s) Nelson counters with practical solutions.
No Pollyanna, she wins loyalists by making clear that permanent weight
loss isnt easy, no matter the brash promises of Sunday-supplement
testimonials. Her exercise plans acknowledge the barriers women must
hurdle to begin them and to remain constant. Her nutrition guidelines
clarify the villains (chiefly snack foods, large portions and
liquid calories) and heroes of a healthy life without imposing
a death sentence on calorie-busting addictions. After all, passion is
something she understands.
Nelson, too, loves to eat, and she explains in Stay Slim how
she keeps weight-gain at bay on her petite frame while consuming an
average of 2,200 calories a day. Her basal metabolism, she says, accounts
for about 1,280 calories; digestion consumes about 220 more; and, surprisingly,
strength-training twice a week and aerobic exercise at least three times
a week burn only about 100 calories daily. Nelson says shes left
with two choices: eat less or move more. Clearly, shes genetically
programmed toward the latter, so she walks instead of driving whenever
possible, climbs stairs, plays active games with her children, walks
about when talking on the telephone.
Nelson eschews as unscientific and ineffective the just eat less
dictum and, instead, encourages women to eat well and not to under-eat.
She offers menus for a trio of caloric-intakes for weight loss, always
linking them to weight-bearing and strength-training exercise programs.
The latter, she says, are crucial, both to halt loss and build mass
in bones and muscles and to aid the body in burning fat. She cites studies
that show strength training benefits women even if they dont lose
Nelson, who has published three more books with colleagues (Strong
Women, Strong Bones; Strong Women Eat Well; and Strong Women and Men
Beat Arthritis) has written another, The Strong Women Journal,
to be published in December 2003. Two more books are scheduled to appear
in 2005 and 2006. And, of course, she continues her teaching and mentoring
of graduate students in addition to her research, writing, and public
After returning from France this summer a hiatus of high-altitude
climbing and hiking with her husband, classical violinist Kinloch Earle,
and their three children, Mason, Eliza, and Alexandra Nelson
also tackled new projects. She is training allied health professionals
and Extension service staff to implement Strong Women programs in community
centers, churches, and senior centers. The first programs will start
in Alaska, California, Kansas, Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts and
will expand to other states later in the fall.
I have a very creative job
. and the field of nutrition is
getting more exciting, she says. Im very passionate
about what I do. This is something I think about with my children, too.
In the end, passion is what drives you to make a difference. Passion
7 SECRETS OF MIND OVER MATTER
Nelson writes in Strong Women Stay Slim that the equation for
weight loss includes healthful eating, exercise, and brainwork. The
mental toughness needed to succeed, she says, is the same required for
any difficult athletic or personal goal.
1. Believe that you can do it: Nelson cites a University of Maryland
weight-loss study in which women were asked if they thought they would
lose weight in the nine-month diet and exercise program. The believers
lost 30 percent more weight than the doubters.
2. Take responsibility: Nelson says women shouldnt foist
the burden onto family members and friends (seeking permission
for a piece of cake, for example) but take charge of their own programs
(and take credit for their success).
3. Set realistic goals: Dont expect to drop two dress sizes
by your friends wedding two months hence or return to a weight
you cannot maintain for life. Nelson says women whose primary motivation
is to be healthier succeed best in losing weight and keeping it off.
4. Make a firm commitment: Theres always a reason to wait,
Nelson says holidays, work schedule, stress. Treat the program
like a vacation. Pick a date on the calendar that youll begin
and let life flow around that commitment.
5. Plan for success: Set times for workouts that have the least
likelihood of falling through. Include some flexible alternatives just
6. Keep records: The factor most associated with success in a
Kaiser-Permanente program of 2,000 participants was keeping food records.
Nelson believes in logs for both eating and exercising both for accuracy
(most people underestimate what they eat) and encouragement.
7. Rebound and learn from mistakes: Gaining a pound or two around
holiday celebrations should be just a minor blip in a lifelong commitment,
Nelson says. Remind yourself how far youve come toward your
long-term goals, Nelson says. Youve got a lot to be