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Strong Woman
Miriam Nelson's Remarkable Run


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 didn’t 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 nutrition–fitness 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 women’s 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. She’s 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 alumna’s audience-riveting prowess. “It was absolutely packed, and she just engaged the audience,” Johnson says. “She’s 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 wasn’t.

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 Vermont’s 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, Nelson’s 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 didn’t focus well, didn’t do well on tests. … Probably, 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.”

Nelson’s 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 she’d 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.

It’s in her second book, Strong Women Stay Slim (also with Sarah Wernick), that Nelson gives probably the clearest reason for her devotion to women’s 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 two epidemics.

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 isn’t 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 she’s left with two choices: eat less or move more. Clearly, she’s 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 don’t lose weight.

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 advocacy.

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. “I’m 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 and intellect.”



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 shouldn’t 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: Don’t expect to drop two dress sizes by your friend’s 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: There’s always a reason to wait, Nelson says – holidays, work schedule, stress. Treat the program like a vacation. Pick a date on the calendar that you’ll 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 in case.

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 you’ve come toward your long-term goals,” Nelson says. “You’ve got a lot to be proud of.”