Wearing the hats of cook, laundress, chauffeur, housekeeper, wife, mother and nurturer, often on top of a full-time job outside the home, women today are somewhat like the little red hen in the children’s story, running around, breathless and busy, with little time to nurture their own health, spirit, and emotional well-being. "Typically women are the caregivers, putting themselves after everyone else’s needs, but now is the time to shift this focus onto ourselves so that we can become stronger women in all aspects of our lives, starting from the heart," says Miriam Nelson, associate professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. She is also the author of eight books in the Strong Women series, including the newly-released "Strong Women, Strong Hearts."
Nelson, along with Nancy Snyderman, a Princeton resident and respected surgeon, author, and former medical correspondent for ABC News, will host the "Stonyfield Farm Strong Women Have Heart" Summit at the Doral Forrestal Conference Center in Princeton, Friday through Sunday, June 24 to 26. The weekend-long event is the first of three such summits in the coming months with the mission of educating, engaging, and empowering women to develop their own inner strengths to make positive changes in their lives. In a press statement, Gary Hirshberg, president and "CE-Yo" of Stonyfield Farm, who has sponsored this program for the past three years, says, "Women have told me after the weekend that it changed their perspective on life, that it energized and reinvigorated them. We have had many women come year after year."
The three-day conference offers a full agenda, including a health fair for fitness evaluations, yoga classes, cooking classes, and strategies for developing a personal action plan. Aimed at rejuvenating and inspiring women of ages, the summit is jointly sponsored by Stonyfield Farm, the world’s largest maker of organic yogurt, and Lluminari, a health education company. Lluminari develops original content and programming through a network of nationally-known physicians and experts, including Drs. Nelson and Snyderman.
"It’s about inspiring women, giving them knowledge as well as a good kick in the backside to tell them now is the time to take better care of yourself because your family, your work, everything else in your life will benefit," says Nelson.
According to Nelson, most people don’t realize that more women have been dying of heart disease than men since 1984. "It’s mostly because women tend to be sedentary and overweight. The newest data show us that your fitness level is a stronger predictor of future heart disease than blood pressure and cholesterol. While it takes serious work to get those down, you can improve your fitness level fairly easily. There is a 12-minute test right in my book that you can take. You basically measure how far you can walk in 12 minutes and you can get an indication of your general fitness level."
Nelson says the weekend workshops "start with taking care of yourself, the idea of physical activity and good nutrition." Seminars will focus on the latest research in terms of improving health, including mental health, and reducing chronic disease, heart disease, obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes, arthritis, and depression. Attendees will learn strategies for taking that first step or if you’ve already taken that first step, how to tweak your efforts to make them more optimal.
Nelson will also be talking about the myriad and sometimes conflicting information about nutrition that has bombarded the public over the last few years. "The issue that is so critical is that you shouldn’t change your eating habits based on one study or on one food group. It’s about the whole pattern of eating. What we’ve learned over decades of research about the optimal pattern of eating is five to seven fruits and vegetables a day, six to eight grains and the right kinds of grains, lean meats, low fat dairy, nuts and seeds. It’s a variety of whole foods, closer to nature, with minimal processing."
Then she digs down deeper to the culture of eating in our society. "In today’s world our car is often the dining room. We’re eating on the run, at our desks, in front of the TV, not eating breakfast at all, or eating convenience foods and not even with the proper utensils. We need to get back to mindful eating, enjoying the family meal, setting a nice atmosphere."
Hand-in-hand with good nutrition, Nelson says, is the need for physical activity. "Women need to both exercise and eat well. Women with kids tend to give up exercise when their kids are young, but once they’re out of that small child stage they need to get back to it."
Nelson, who is 45, knows all about the demands of juggling work, home, and personal needs. She and her husband, Kin Earle, are the parents of three teenagers, 17, 15, and 13, one boy and two girls. As a violinist who does chamber music and orchestra work and teaches at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, her husband is the primary caregiver to the children and Nelson considers herself lucky to have quite a lot of freedom. "It’s important to try to have a close family unit. You have to communicate with your kids and be a part of their lives. At the root they have to have confidence and a strong sense of self-worth and value. Many of the kids today have strong exteriors but inside they have self-doubt."
Nelson’s own strong sense of self-worth comes largely from her athleticism and skill at riding horses, which began in her childhood. She was one of three children who grew up outside Philadelphia with their mom, an artist, and their dad, who worked at Scott Paper. In her late teens the family moved to Vermont. "I loved science in high school, and I loved sports. I discovered that I could blend what I enjoyed doing personally around my studies and it all came together around fitness, nutrition, and public health." She studied nutrition at the University of Vermont, went to graduate school at Tufts, did some public policy work at the Senate, then returned to Massachusetts to do research and teach at Tufts.
Her first book, called "Strong Women Stay Young," came out in 1997 and ignited her career as an expert on women’s health and nutrition. She started traveling around the country conducting events similar to the "Strong Women Have Heart Summit" coming up in Princeton. "My timing was right," says Nelson, adding that now women are much more aware about the importance of nutrition, exercise, and keeping everything in balance, and they are demanding good information.
Nancy Snyderman agrees that everything is linked and the key is balance. "In medical school you are taught to divorce the spiritual and emotional from the physical. And then you grow up and put on mileage as a doctor and discover that they are all intertwined. Cardiac health, cancer survival, all of it is linked with positive emotional health. This summit is geared toward women and strength and giving them the tools to stay strong spiritually and physically."
At the conference Snyderman will read from her autobiographical book, "Necessary Journeys: Letting Ourselves Learn From Life;" discuss her work with global health issues; and present a talk about mothers and daughters in the adolescent years. The latter is a topic with which she has plenty of personal experience as the mother of two teenage daughters, Kate, 18, who has just wrapped up her senior year of high school in San Anselmo, California, and Rachel, 16, who just finished her sophomore year at Princeton High School. She and her husband, Doug Myers, an independent sports producer, also have a son, Charlie, who just finished fourth grade at Johnson Park Elementary School. After years in the San Francisco Bay area, the family moved to Princeton last September. "I was on a plane every 7 to 10 days. I’ve been bicoastal for years and I thought it would be fun for my California kids to get to know another coast," says Snyderman. How do her kids like the change? "Academically they’re finding it more challenging. There’s a softness and forgiveness in California. There’s an abruptness and energy on the east coast, and they’re feeling that. But my son, the minute he saw snow he thought it was great."
Snyderman was born in St. Louis in 1952 to a father who was a surgeon and a mother who was an artist. They both now live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She earned a B.S. in microbiology at Indiana University, and then went to medical school at the University of Nebraska. Snyderman served as the director of the division of head and neck surgery for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences from 1983 until 1988. After doing medical reporting for a local television station in San Francisco, she was hired by ABC as a medical correspondent and spent the next 15 years reporting for Good Morning America, 20/20, and ABC News on such topics as AIDS; colon, breast, and ovarian cancer; heart disease, fetal surgery, prenatal testing, and osteoporosis. She also maintained a private practice in San Francisco.
In 2002 Johnson & Johnson offered her an opportunity to create a new consumer education initiative. Her mission now is to figure out the gap between what she believes women should know about health and what they don’t know.
Snyderman says the mother-daughter relationship is not the horror story that it’s often made out to be. "Sure it’s fraught with ups and downs but when you have bright, inquisitive girls who are trying to figure out their landscape that comes with tension." She says the maternal relationship is of paramount importance in a child’s life. "Children look to their mothers for kindness and rootedness. If you know someone you like as an adult, chances are they had a great relationship with their mother."
Snyderman says her own daughters couldn’t be more opposite, and she works every day to let them figure out who they are. "They have a right to discover their own voices. Girls should be encouraged to have a voice and to disagree, politely, of course."
Snyderman says that mothers and daughters have to learn to read each other’s language. "When your daughter tells you, get out of my life, I hate you, what she’s really saying is, get out of my room, I want space." She believes in letting kids think things through and work through their own ideas.
Snyderman recognizes the pressure women have had to "have it all," and she says what is important is to define what "having it all" really means. "That definition can change day in and day out, and a lot of that can depend on who is defining it. I really think it also depends on what stage of life you are in. You don’t have to be the broadcaster who doesn’t have children or the mother who can’t go back to work because she had children."
Snyderman says a strong self-image and sense of positive worth start young. "You don’t just get that at the age of 40. It starts as an adolescent. The more we can let our kids evolve over time and teach them that being strong is sexy and wonderful, that’s the gift we’re going to give our teenage girls." It’s also a great gift to give all women, no matter what age they might be.
Strong Women Have Heart Health Summit, Friday through Sunday, June 24 to 26, Doral Forrestal Conference Center and Spa, 100 College Road. For more information and to register visit www.strongwomen.com/summit or call 800-947-1103.