History of the StrongWomen Program

The StrongWomen Program is a national evidence-based community exercise and nutrition program targeted to midlife and older women developed based on research conducted by Dr. Miriam Nelson and colleagues at Tufts University.

The Research

In 1989 Dr. Miriam Nelson and colleagues received a National Institutes of Health research grant to examine how strength training might affect bone density and risk factors for osteoporosis for women midlife and older.  The year-long study of postmenopausal sedentary women aged 50 and older were randomized into two groups – half of the women continued their normal pattern of sedentary living and the other half participated in a progressive strength training program twice per week. Over the year, the sedentary group lost strength, lean tissue, and bone density, became more sedentary, and gained body fat.  By contrast, the group that strength-trained gained muscle, experienced improvements in balance and bone density at the hip and spine, and lost body fat.  The study, which was the first study to show that women in midlife and older could strength train at a high intensity and become more youthful over time, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1994.

The Books

Soon after publication of the article, Dr. Nelson worked with friend and colleague, Sarah Wernick, to write the book StrongWomen Stay Young with the goal of bringing the research-based exercise prescription that was so successful to women across the country.  Dr. Nelson’s book struck a chord with women nationwide and it became a New York Times bestseller.

The Program

The StrongWomen Program has two curricula StrongWomen Strength Training and StrongWomen – Healthy Hearts.   The StrongWomen Strength Training curriculum was inspired by a phone call Dr. Nelson received from a cooperative extension agent in Kenai, Alaska, Linda Tannehill after StrongWomen Stay Young was published.  Extension educators are part of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, formerly Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, and run community programs in the areas of agriculture, food, nutrition, and health.  Linda was using StrongWomen Stay Young as the basis for community programs for women in her area. She and another cooperative extension agent, Jean Clarkson-Frisbee from Kansas, asked Dr. Nelson to develop an actual curriculum, one that they could use to teach strength training in a community setting.  Today, the StrongWomen Strength Training Program is disseminated through a strong, nationwide partnership with extension educators within the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The StrongWomen – Healthy Hearts curriculum was born from conversations between Dr. Nelson and her close colleague, internationally renowned cardiovascular nutrition researcher, Dr. Alice Lichtenstein.  They wished to combine forces to address heart disease, which is the number one cause of death for both women and men.   Together, they wrote the book StrongWomen Strong Hearts.  This led to a grant from the Fannie E. Rippel Foundation to translate the book into a curriculum and to evaluate it in a randomized, controlled study.   The curriculum helps women reduce their risk of heart disease through a combination of aerobic exercise, via dancing to a DVD created for the project or walking outside if location and weather permit; and leader-directed discussion and hands-on activities to modify dietary intake patterns, as well as weight control strategies.  The initial evaluation to scientifically establish its effectiveness took place in eight counties in Arkansas and Kansas.  Since, researchers at Tufts have received funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the growth of StrongWomen – Healthy Hearts in Pennsylvania and through the first cohort of trained leaders nationwide.


Thirteen StrongWomen Ambassadors currently hold workshops in the StrongWomen Strength Training curriculum in 8 states – Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  Ambassadors are long-term program leaders who have undergone extensive instruction and mentorship, and who possess an exceptional level of proficiency in program principles, the research foundation, and exercise technique and safety.   Since 2003, over 2,500 leaders have been trained throughout the United States and Canada.  StrongWomen Ambassadors and Tufts University program directors have collectively held over 140 workshops for new leaders.  The StrongWomen – Healthy Hearts Program has over 100 trained leaders throughout the United States.  We are currently developing a “virtual” workshop for new leaders using blended technologies.  We expect this to be in place by early 2012.