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Women should lift weights to gain muscle, fitness expert says

Dr. Miriam Nelson has written four books claiming that strong women stay young and slim, eat well and have strong bones, but the final slide of her talk at MIT showed an even more compelling image of a strong woman: Marilyn Monroe doing a bench press.

Yes, even the queen of glam pumped iron. And while Nelson can't make all women look as good as Monroe did in her short life, she can help them look and feel their personal best as they grow older.

"I want to help you age as optimally as you can, so when you're 90, you'll be as fit as genetically possible," said Nelson, an associate professor of nutrition at Tufts University. She was speaking to an audience of mostly women over 35 in a talk sponsored by the Women's League; Health Education at MIT Medical; and the Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation.

Nelson is director of the Center for Physical Fitness at Tufts and author of "Strong Women Stay Young," "Strong Women Stay Slim," "Strong Women, Strong Bones" and "Strong Women Eat Well"--books that have been translated into 13 languages and collectively sold more than a million copies worldwide. Her topic at the Nov. 5 event in Wong Auditorium was, not surprisingly, "Strong Women."

A pioneer in the field of strength-training and the elderly (hers was some of the first research to show that even minimal strength training in the frail elderly can improve their ability to handle simple tasks like walking to the bathroom), Nelson has stayed on-topic for years. Her research, books and talks encourage women to exercise in order to live better lives now and as they get older. She began her research as a graduate student at Tufts in 1983.

"At that time we were worried about sending someone in their early 50s out for a walk. We thought they were old. Now we think people about 102 are old," she said. After doing walking studies on people ages 50-70, she began looking at the role of muscles more closely in the late 1980s.

"We realized that the reason people were in long-term care facilities was more related to the fact that they were so weak in their legs and arms that they couldn't climb the stairs or pull themselves up out of the bathtub," said Nelson, who claims that what we call "typical aging" is actually the result of a sedentary lifestyle, which accelerates the aging process.

Regular physical activity can help reduce the incidence of diabetes, breast and colon cancers, depression, anxiety disorders, obesity, osteoporosis and cognitive impairment, among other things, she said.

But cardiovascular exercise alone won't necessarily deter "the drifiting-south phenomemen," when the body composition shifts toward increased fat and decreased muscle. Women start out with more body fat than men and after age 40 have, on average, about 45 percent body fat. That gain in fat is at the expense of muscle, causing women to weaken considerably as they age.

"We need to hold onto this muscle as long as possible so we can remain independent," said Nelson. To do that, she showed that simple exercises, like chair bends or bicep curls, can slow muscle loss.

In addition to the Monroe photo, Nelson showed a slide of a 92-year-old woman whose leotard-clad body appeared to be about 35. She was lifting a 130-pound barbell, flanked by four fit, young men, at least one of whom looked more than a little surprised.

"Don't let age preclude you from believing in the capacity for resiliency in people," Nelson said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 14, 2001.

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