By Laura Gallagher
Photographed by Kaia Calhoun

As an exercise physiologist, exercise psychologist, researcher, speaker and educator, Garvin has seen thousands of people struggle to find understandable, practical health strategies that can reasonably fit into an already packed life.

Garvin ought to know about juggling life’s priorities. Along with her considerable academic pedigree, she’s a published author of two novels, with a third one hitting the bookstores next summer. She’s also the mother of two daughters, ages 16 and 18, a blogger, and host of workshops on such subjects as writing and health.

Longtime friend Tamara Scerpella, an orthopedic surgeon at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, says Garvin has helped her juggle the things on her overfull plate as well.

“I’ve seen Annie evolve over the years with her desire to promote wellbeing,” Scerpella says. “Because it’s about health but with a broader definition of the word—not just medical health or mental health but also wellbeing, your ability to enjoy life and concentrate on the things that are important and not concentrate on the things that keep you away from the ones you care about.”

Garvin, 54, was born in New Jersey and grew up an hour away from New York City. In eighth grade, her family moved to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, ending up, as she says, “an hour away from the closest JC Penney.” When she came of age, she headed to Duluth, Minnesota, to study nursing, and got her first job as camp nurse at the Wisconsin Lions Camp in Stevens Point.

In 1985, while working as a nurse at the Veteran’s Hospital in Madison, Garvin realized she loved the helping people part of nursing but not the hospital part, and found she had more questions than answers about how to best help patients. So for her, the immediate solution was more study, and she started working on her master’s degree at UW-Madison.

By 1997, armed with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, she began her career as a professor at UW-Whitewater. She now teaches courses in research methods and nutrition and helps train future health educators.

She’s dedicated to helping people—especially women—wade through the huge, headache-inducing amount of health information out there to find what works.

“There’s a lot—a lot—of garbage out there,” she says. “You have to figure out how to sift through it and really critically think, which I find people don’t have time for. I help people do that part to speed up the process.”

We need to stop looking for fast and easy answers, Garvin says, and really work to understand the research behind health science, especially in these Internet-saturated days.

“A lot of my healthy living classes are almost more media literacy than health,” says Garvin. “Having a very skeptical attitude is a good way to go.”

“You need an arsenal of the right questions to ask when confronting a claim,” she says. “For instance, we often hear, ‘this is good for you.’ What we need to ask is, compared to what? Compared to eating fast food for every meal or compared to having a balanced lunch or getting enough sleep, or just plain slowing down?”

Scerpella says Garvin is successful in this work because of her warm, outgoing and engaging personality.

“She turns her attention on you and you sort of bask in it,” Scerpella says. “And I think that allows people to be very open and receptive to what she’s talking about. I think she reaches people and her message is embraced because of the way she’s able to present it.”

Amid this work, Garvin continues to write. Her novels include “On Maggie’s Watch” and “”The Dog Year.” Another, “I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around,” is due out next summer. She got her start when she entered the Wisconsin Book Festival’s 24-hour writing contest and won second place. She had to build her story—the first fiction she’d written—around a photo sent by the contest organizers.

“My love for putting a picture or character in my mind and putting a story around it was born,” Garvin says. “I’ve always spent a lot of time watching, observing people. When we moved I was an outsider in a tiny town, so I’m sure that’s where it started.

“I’m thrilled to be a success at it,” she says. “Discovering you Can be a writer is like finding a superhero cape in your closet.”

As she manages her own passion, Garvin says she’s determined to help women “fight for who they want to be, rather than who the culture wants them to be.” Stay-at-home mothers feel compelled to justify their existence, while working moms have to justify that decision. Even working women without kids usually shoulder the “homemaking” burden and often find themselves in charge of loved ones’ care as well.

At times it can become a competition, and a very sad one—the need to do everything, be everywhere, sign up for everything (no matter how inconsequential) — and then feel miserable. With pictures.

Garvin helps people take healthful steps, 15 minutes at a time, gradually building more good choices into their routines over time.

“Healthy behavior isn’t that complicated, it’s the pressure of culture and the misinformation that makes it seem so much harder than it is,” Garvin continues. “My job is to help people sort through it all, tell stories that make people feel OK to be human, and try to get a smile out of them along the way.”

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