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January 20, 2008

Meet Michael T. Nelson, Very Fit Grad Student: "Training is a method to get more out of life"

Grad students are busy. PhD students perhaps especially so as they begin to run their own research projects and publish independent results. As with any class of student, there are no 9 to 5 hours. The work takes what it takes, and it takes a lot. A lot of time, energy and patience. It's easy to become a single track person, focusing on one's studies and nothing but.

What sets Michael T. Nelson apart is that not only is he a full time PhD student, he's also a very well qualified health consultant.

He's certified - like WAY certified in serious programs. He holder the following certificates:
Mike Nelson

  • CSCS, probably the most respected strength and conditioning certification out there - just take a look at the number of top people in the field who preface their PhD's with "CSCS." The certification requires a degree qualification.
  • Z-health, R, I and T phases - joint mobility and central nervous system work
  • RKC - Certified Russian Kettlebell instructor

Where some grad students have jobs to fund their studies (so does Mike - a couple in fact), Mike also has clients. He uses his certifications and academic knowledge to support his successful fitness consultancy.

No wonder Mike is a proponent of Getting Things Done (see below): one has to be organized to succeed at both one's scholarship and business. As if this isn't enough, Mike is also a Fit Guy. That means he's making time for his own health as well as that of his clients' - and the health of his research work.

So if anyone knows both the slings and arrows of an entrepreneurial grad life AND the value/deep scientific basis for thinking fitness thoughts at the same time, it's the soon-to-be Dr. Nelson.

While Mike is an up and coming voice in the fitness scene, he is also a generous guy: he hangs out on a variety of fitness forums providing free, technically and scientifically supported feedback to folks on their health, fitness and nutrition questions. With his qualifications and background, when he posts, folks listen. Mike kindly agreed to slice into some more of those precious temporal resources to talk about health, fitness and being a grad student.

The following reflects our conversation about helping folks think about getting fit; getting into some good nutrition practices, and why and how to follow through.

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mc: Ok Mike, what is "kinesiology" and what made you decide to do a PhD in it? What are you specializing in?

MTN: Kinsiology is broadly defined as "the study of movement" or more exactly "The study of the anatomy, physiology, and mechanics of body movement, especially in humans." REF Farlex dictionary.

I took the long route and first did a BA in Natural Science, then 2 years of post grad work in Mechanical Engineering and then a MS in Mechanical Engineering from Michigan Tech specializing in biomechanics. After almost 8 years of college full time I swore I was never going back again! Well 1 year later I was taking classes again and eventually I was 2 classes short of completing my classwork (but not research) in the PhD program for Biomedical Engineering at the U of MN. I was sitting in a class where we had to derive equations used in MRIs and decided I had had enough. I switched to Kinesiology and started taking classes again. Yikes. I was always facinated by physiology and took physiology class for fun each quarter. I realized that exercise physiology was my true passion and I was spending my own money to take vacations to go to exercise physiology conferences! Time to switch.

I am specializing in Exercise Physiology working on some proposal regarding RER (respiratory exchange ratios) in some new ways. RER is a number that you get from a metabolic cart (that thing you breath into when exercising in a lab) that tells you the percentage of fuel from carbs and fats. We may be doing some studies on the effects of energy drinks in kids too.

mc You're a grad student, but you're also a certified six ways past sunday fitness consultant: CSCS, RKC, Z-Health. How are you balancing your studies with your fitness consulting practice?

MTN: It is tricky, but time management is key. I recommend David Allen's "Getting Things Done" and Tim Ferris' book "The Four Hour Work Week". Both are excellent. [mc - we'll come back to this last point about 4hr WK WK later...]
The reality is that I had to cut back training clients and some consulting a bit in order to put more time info my PhD, but that is fine for now. I also work part time at a medical device company where I've been for over 7 years.

mc: Ok another thing, from a student perspective: none of these certs are cheap. How are you managing to cover the costs as a student?

As mentioned, I work part time and I also TA for Exercise Physiology, so that helps cover the main bills. I then took all the money that I make from consulting, training and decided to put it towards furthering my education until I finish my PhD. It is expensive, but I look at it as a long term investment that will pay off. Currently I have almost reached my ROI (return on investment ) from Z Health I Phase (level 2) and I just took it in July; so there is a return. All the top people in the industry are constanting furthering their education and experience level.

Training is a method to get more out of life!

mc : Super! Let's move onto students/grad student life. Since kinesiology is exercise science, let's get this out of the way up front: are all your student colleagues in kinesiology fit, or is this just like any other grad student population, ie, largely geeks to their domain and don't spend much time in the gym, working out, eating healthy etc?

MTN: I would say it is pretty close to any other depts, but there are always exceptions. It seems to be a bit more polarized with some that don't exercise much and others that do more than most.

mc: Since your cohort might be fairly in keeping with norms of the student body, what gets you so motivated to get fit and stay fit? How do your activities fit in or not with the regular (grad) student lifestyle?

Basically it just has to be a priority. Don't think how can you possibly fit it in, find a way. There is no option of not doing it.

Personally I set up a gym in my garage and I LOVE it. I am able to train clients there by walking out my door and they get a private place with only the rules I put in place--so we can lfit odd objects, lift barefoot, drop weights if needed (not on our feet of course). I can also control the enviroment which is key.

If that is not an option, get some Kettlebells and you can go anywhere!

[mc nods vigorously, virtually and enthusiastically on the merits of kettlebells; digs out link for great source in the UK and in the US for same]

Get an oly [Olympic ] bar and some used weights and there you have tons more options. That is what I did for quite some time and it worked great. I also have a gym membership at work, at the U of MN and a punch pass at The Press (local gym). Figure out a way and you will make it happen.

Training is a method to get more out of life! I love doing adrenaline filled activities like kiteboarding, snowboarding, wakeboarding, mountain biking, etc. Training has allowed me to go out and kiteboard for example for hours and get the most out of the conditions. Training correctly also creates a "smart body" to increase your performance and reduce the risk of injury. Plus I love to train!

Motivation to Eat Right
mc Awesome. Let's come back to training and motivation. For a moment, let's look at a corollary to the fitness side: the nutrition part of a healthy lifestyle. I've talked about nutrition in general and Precision Nutrition in particular with some of my students and colleagues, and while they're not necessarily unwilling, there seem to be some pretty deep grained mis-impressions about good nutrition practice. The kinds of comments i frequently get are

a) meal prep is too time consuming/complicated
b) it costs too much to eat "like that"
c) i already eat "healthy"

What's your thoughts on these?

MTK Awesome that you are spreading the good Precision Nutrition word! Nice work! Same excuses I hear. They are just excuses. For a and b ask them to fill out how much time they spend with their normal meal prep and eating and they will be shocked!

As a strategy: having all of your food prepped ahead of time is the #1 tip! I don't have time to cook and prepare each meal, so having it all ready to go by Monday AM is huge for me.

For c, ask them to fill out the 3 day diet record. Most people come back and go "oh, yeah I do need to work on my nutrition" Most have no idea what they are putting in their cake hole.

Motivation to Work Out
mc: Great advice. Ok then, moving back to the workout front, when talking with students and colleagues about working out, other comments i hear, not without sympathy, are:

a) i don't have time
b) i need something i can do with little or no equipment (don't want to go to the gym)
c) need something i can do when i'm at the lab or when i'm at home.
d) equipment is too expensive: what's cheap?

Perhaps you've heard similar. What are your thoughts?

MTN: Again, you have to be motivated and make it a priority. Body weight exercises are dirt cheap, so start there. A push up costs you nothing! KBs [kettlebells] are great and as cheap as anything when you consider the list of exercises you can do. As mentioned, get a used bar and some free weights. I think I paid a total of $200 for over 700 lbs of free weights. Sandbags are also great and cheap. There are options out there.

mc: You mention "motivation." What are your techniques to get going and do your workout on a day when the inevitable hits and you just don't feel like it?

MTN: It is a razor thin line between not being ready for a training session and being lazy. If I don't want to train, I crank up some nice metal music, drink some tea and start doing some Z Health.

Normally I feel pretty good by then. If not, I still go to the gym (or outside) and start slow and move into my main lifts. If that lift is not going well, I will try a different movement. If that is still not going well I may try a few more movements and if nothing is working, I call it a day and get more rest---my body was just not ready. A vast majority of the time I get a good session in, but there are days when I just need more rest. You have to listen to your body and test it out.

Tips for Starting Out on a Fitness Plan
mc: So what might your tips be for someone just thinking about starting out with a fitness program?

Find a good trainer! Seriously, exercise can be considered a drug and all drugs has side effects. Granted, acutely most exercise is incredibly safe, but long term you can mess yourself up. Start slower than you want to, learn PERFECT form and listen to your body. Enlist all your friends and get a good support netwerk going also!

mc: Any tips for people who have been working out for a wee while (a month or so) to help keep them motivated and stick with it?

MTN: Find a trainer and get some social support! Also make sure to work on your mobility and get any biomechanical issues fixed. Alignment is huge.

Motivation Redux
mc: just to come back to the motivation front for a sec, for folks in academe who don't think making their nutritional and physical health a priority, what do you think might be a motivator?

My thoughts have been to consider how good health and fitness have been shown to support brain function, alertness, less time off sick, feeling crap, and so on. I still don't have a rock solid case to say "if you don't work out / eat right, this is what it will cost you in lost time, health, years, vitality, enjoyment, etc." Thoughts?

MTN: I think getting people out of pain is the first motivational thing as it makes training/movement more enjoyable; but very hard training is not always "fun".

I think most sessions should be low threat and fun for all athletes. This will be different for everyone. I also work to make sure athletes leave feeling better than when they came in for 90% of their sessions. They will work hard, but the point is not to beat them up just to show that I can make people work hard. Working hard and smart are not the same. Any monkey can make you sweat.

I don't know why some have more initial motivation than others. If I could motivate 100% of the people I would be world reknown by now :) I am intersted in what you find out though!

mc Well let's test out the theory a bit: when was the last time you got sick? What was it and did you beat it? You know what i'm getting it: that eating right and working out right and recovering right means you're better able to keep upright.

Last time I was sick was right before the RKC Cert this past Oct. I had tons of stress trying to submit an abstract, research, class, blah blah blah and just did not get enough recovery in. I called in sick, slept as much as possible, pounded veggies, tea and Vit C and was pretty good in a few days. I knew I was getting sick and listened to my body, but I failed to take action and paid the price!

[And on that cheery note, we wrapped the interview. ]

mc: Thanks very much to you Mr. Nelson for your time, energy and enthusiasm.


There's a number of concepts raised here for future posts, from Getting Things Done (one strategy for operationalizing that SMART criteria to setting and meeting goals) to what "recovery" and notions of something like "active recovery" rather than overwork and collapse mean, to olympic bars and kettlebells, to how to find a good trainer: that could be as simple as finding someone a little more experienced than you to work out with, or getting at least a few sessions with a qualified professional if only to do that Alignment Assessment Mike mentioned (we really do have to come back to that. for example, can you touch your toes? can you squat your bum down to your heels?).

In the meantime, Mike can be found for consultation via his web site www.mikeTnelson.com; his fitness philosophy can also be explored on his blog at http://miketnelson.blogspot.com.

Thanks again, Mike.

January 2, 2008

vitamin d: essential sun in a capsule

I've been charting my food intake for the past couple weeks, and just looked at the RDA (recommended daily allowance) charts for the vitamin content. Everything is pretty well at or way above 100% - except vitamin D.

In the UK, unlike the US, dairy products and even soy products are not fortified with vitamin D. Now the usual super source of this vitamin is the Sun. In the winter, what with (a) going out less and (b) having more skin covered when we do go out and (c) having really crap grey days, our key source of Vitamin D goes, well, out the window.

This loss of Le Sol means it's a good idea to supplement our supply.


Vitamin D is a HUGE important vitamin. It's major known role is enabling utilization of calcium. Calcium is not only critical for bone building, but also in muscle building. Without calcium, something called the myosin/actin bridge which enables muscle contraction can't work. But the main role of vitamin D is to let calcium work for bone building. It's also being shown as important for boosting the immune system and having a big impact on SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

So how get that extra boost of D and how much do we need?

Vitamin D is tricky to get from food despite the fact that we need so little of it a day relative to other vitamins and minerals.

5 micrograms a day if your under 50; 10 from 50 to 70, and 20 from 70+

To put this in perspective: a microgram is a millionth of a gram. Most other vitamins and minerals are measured in milligrams, or a thousandth of a gram. The difference is like that between a kilogram and a tonne. Not nothing. And therefore amazing to think that such a tiny amount is (a) so hard to get and yet (b) so important.

As for sources: cod liver oil rules. Cod liver oil is one of the all time best sources of vitamin D. 3.5 ounces of cooked salmon will get you your daily requirement; 3 ounces of tuna will also do it, but when you're not eating either of these fishes each day, get a supplement. You can also get a calcium + vitamin D tablet from Boots.

The advantage of a cod liver oil pill, especially if you're already getting enough calcium, is that besides getting vitamin D you also get vitamins A and E AND those wonderful omega three fatty acids EPA and DHA - not quite as many of them as found in a typical fish oil pill, but heh if you take a fish oil cap or 2 with each meal already, swapping one of those pills for cod liver oil during the winter is a great idea.

And not just for the calcium assistance property. Your grandma was right when she said "take cod liver oil and you won't get a cold" Vitamin D has been shown to impact resistance to influenza in kids in particular. Also at least one study has shown that temporarily upping to the daily amount of vitamin D for a month had a greater impact on seasonal affective disorder than the usual full spectrum light therapy. The dose increase was substantial (200 IU units is the RDA; the study used 100 thousand IU's for a month. As the note on the study says, more studies need to happen to confirm this work).

All things considered, its' highly likely that folks in the UK are actually vitamin D deficient. When considering how important vitamin D is for our winter health, finding ways to ensure we get enough - whether upping fish intake, or cod liver oil or taking a pill - at least for the winter till the sun comes out, and we get out into the sun, getting that Vitamin D somewhere is critical.

UPDATE DEC 08: it seems the RDA of Vit D is WAY LOW especially for folks in more northerly/colder climes where we see little sun, and our skin is exposed to little sun. There's a debate of anywhere from 2000IU to 15,000 IU's a DAY, but suffice it to say, that 200IU is at least 10 times too little. Time to look for bigger capsules. If you find a UK source for same, please let me know.