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Stress and the Psychology of Heart Health

By Michelle Matte, MSEd, CSCS

Stress Kills

Most of us accept stress as a necessary evil that is
a part of the American lifestyle. But living under stress day in and day out can lead to heart disease. According to the American Psychological Association, prolonged stress can contribute to high blood pressure and circulatory problems, and if stress makes you angry and irritable, you are more likely to have heart disease or even a heart attack. The APA notes that stress may be a more important risk factor than smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. A 2013 study published in “ARYA Atherosclerosis” concluded that more attention must be paid to psychological factors that contribute to heart disease.

stressed woman

It’s In Our DNA

The way your body responds to stress is programmed into your animal DNA. When fear and anxiety are present, your immune system releases pro-inflammatory cytokines that lead to inflammation and the release of ghrelin, a stress hormone associated with unhealthy weight gain. In a 2014 review published in “Psychology Bulletin,” researchers explain that this biological inflammatory response to adversity may be critical for survival during times of actual physical threat or injury. But prolonged daily stress turns a temporary fight or flight response into a chronic condition that can lead to heart disease and depression.

stressed man

Lifestyle Hacks

When it comes to heart health, University of Wisconsin Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, a psychologist who works with the Preventive Cardiology group, asserts, “We often think of exercise, nutrition and family history, but stress is equally important and sometimes underemphasized.” Regular daily exercise and a whole foods diet of fresh fruits and vegetables are important weapons in the war against stress. Yoga, meditation and other stress management strategies can also make a difference.

Happiness Heals

If fear and anxiety are the hallmarks of stress, happiness is its antithesis. People and circumstances cannot make you happy. You can only cultivate happiness within yourself, according to Amir Sood, MD, when you stop looking at the negative things in the world and begin to practice gratitude for what you have, and compassion for the pain of others. Says Dr. Sood, “The pursuit of gratitude and compassion will make you happier than the pursuit of happiness.” And happiness will soothe your heart.

happy girl


To learn more about stress management strategies, enroll in the WITS Lifestyle Fitness Coaching course, available online.

References and Credits

ARYA Atherosclerosis: Psychological Factors and Coronary Heart Disease


American Psychological Association: Mind/Body Health: Heart Disease


Amit Sood, MD: A Very Happy Brain


Psychology Bulletin:


Uniersity of Wisconsin Health: Health Psychology for Healthy Hearts


*Images courtesy of

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Gut Feeling: How Digestive Health Affects Your Heart

By Michelle Matte, MSEd, CSCS

Your Second Brain

We all recognize the link between good nutrition and a healthy heart. But new research is revealing the important role played by the digestive system in regulating your mood, thoughts, decision making and disease risk. Dubbed the “second brain,” your gut has over 100 million neurons, called the enteric nervous system, or ENS. According to Dr. Michael Gershon, professor and chair of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University, the ENS works on its own, without any input from the brain. Not only does it control the movement and absorption of food in your intestines, but it communicates with the brain, sending signals that affect feeling, memory, learning and decision making.


Heart Health and Digestion

There is growing evidence that gut health is linked to metabolic health, and that the environment in your gut is influenced by the food you eat. A study published in “Current Medical Chemistry” found a strong link between a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, or CHD, and the consumption of plant foods rich in fibre and polyphenolic compounds. The researchers attributed an improvement in heart health to plant compounds being converted to biologically active compounds in the colon. Those compounds, often referred to as gut flora, appear to have a positive effect on metabolic health.

belly ache

Micro Organisms and Antibiotics

Gut flora are living microorganisms, or bacteria, that provide a wall of protection between your digestive tract and your blood stream. According to the Cleveland Clinic, gut flora give rise to a metabolite that alters cholesterol metabolism in the walls of your arteries. When you consume antibiotics found in animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy, or when you take antibiotics to combat bacterial infection, they can have a negative impact on your healthy gut flora. In a 2012 study published in “Gut”, researchers found that antibiotics can seriously alter the interaction of gut microorganisms.

Leaky Gut Syndrome

When the bacterial flora in your digestive tract are not in balance, you could develop inflammation and irritation that can cause the lining of your intestines to become porous, allowing food and toxins to leach into your bloodstream. As unwanted particles begin to circulate, your immune system identifies them as unwanted invaders, and it builds up antibodies to defend you from them. This can lead to metabolic inflammation, which is one of the precursors to heart disease.

organic eggs

Turning Things Around

To promote a healthy gut, eat plenty of whole organic fruits and vegetables. Avoid animal products that contain antibiotics, and opt for meat, eggs and dairy products from organic pasture-raised animals. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and organic yogurt can help restore a healthy balance of gut flora. A probiotic supplement may also be effective.


To learn more about the impact of nutrition on heart health, consider enrolling in the WITS Nutritional Concepts continuing education course.


Cleveland Clinic: Gut Flora and Heart Health – A New Novel Pathway?


Current Medicinal Chemistry; The Gut Microbiota and Lipid Metabolism.


Daily Mail: Time to get some culture! Why fermented food is good for your gut.


US News Health: Leaky Gut: What is It and How to Heal It.


Science Daily: Effects of Antibiotics on Gut Flora Analyzed.


Psychology Today; Your Backup Brain.


*Images courtesy of








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Heart Disease: America’s Killer

by Michelle Matte, MSEd, CSCS

The Numbers Say It All

For decades, Cardiovascular Disease, or CVD, has been the number one killer in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, over 800,000 Americans die each year from CVD. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that changing lifestyle behaviors is a highly effective way to reduce the risk of CVD. Participants in the study reduced their CVD risk by 65 percent through smoking cessation, increased physical activity, moderation of alcohol consumption and consuming a healthy diet.

heart in globe

It’s a Global Problem

The prevalence of CVD is world-wide, and CVD is the primary cause of world death, making up 31 percent of all causes of death globally. The World Health Organization, or WHO, notes that over three quarters of deaths from CVD occur in low- and middle-income countries. This last statistic is of interest when you consider that the United States is categorized as an affluent country, yet CVD is rampant in the US.

The Good News

The good news is that the rate of death from CVD has been declining slightly in the New Millennium. However, the decline is due mostly to innovations in interventions, including surgical procedures and pharmaceuticals, and not to a decrease in the incidence of CVD. Most cardiovascular diseases are caused by behavioral risk factors, according to the WHO. Tobacco use, unhealthy diet, obesity, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol are cited as the primary causes.  All of these factors can be addressed by behavior modification.

heart attack man

The Not-So-Good News

Diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome, all precursors to CVD, are all on the rise. Large portion sizes, processed foods, sedentary lifestyle and stress are all linked to negative health trends. Reversing these trends by consuming whole fresh organic foods, restricting or eliminating sugar and grains from the diet and engaging in daily vigorous exercise are all ways to decrease metabolic disease and eliminate CVD risk. Misleading marketing of processed foods, and the promotion of pharmaceuticals as an alternative to lifestyle change, leave many confused about how to best improve their health.

wits oa heart health

The Fitness Professional’s Role

To effectively help your clients combat CVD and other metabolic disorders, you must be well informed and educated. Your clients will come armed with a plethora of misleading and inaccurate information, and you will have to effectively dispel it. Staying on the cutting edge by reading professional journals and interacting with other professionals in the fitness community will help you help your clients. Keeping your certification current by enrolling in continuing education classes will keep you up to speed with the latest information. Reading your monthly WITS Newsletter and regularly reading the WITS blog will also help you to stay informed. Pass your knowledge on to your clients verbally, or consider creating your own newsletter to distribute to your clients monthly.


Keep on the cutting edge of knowledge about CVD and metabolic disease by actively participating in the many courses and seminars offered by WITS. Our professional educators will keep you informed and motivated, and help you grow as a professional in the best career ever!

References and Credits

American Heart Association: Trends in CVD and Stroke Mortality


American Journal of Public Health: Low-Risk Lifestyle Behaviors and All-Cause Mortality: Findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III Mortality Study.


The Heart Foundation: Heart Disease: Scope and Impact


World Health Organization: Cardiovascular Diseases (CVDs)


*Images courtesy of


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Trainer’s Prerogative: How to Change Your Client’s Mind

It’s a Mind Game

Many people think that personal training is all about sweat and deprivation. But seasoned trainers know that when it comes to goal achievement, working out and healthy eating are only the tip of the iceberg. The real challenge of training is to overcome your clients’ mental obstacles to success. In order for your clients to achieve optimal results, they need to cultivate mental toughness. In his book “The New Toughness Training for Sports,” Dr. Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute identified mental, emotional and bodily toughness as key ingredients leading to peak performance.


Mental Toughness

Many of your clients will begin with low levels of mental toughness. Past failures, lack of confidence, and low intrinsic motivation present obstacles that the trainer must address. Asking open ended questions during the initial health screening interview, then listening carefully to your client’s responses, can give you insight into a new client’s mental preparedness for training. Setting concrete and realistic goals for your client will lay the foundation for success. Giving your new clients a realistic overview of what it will take for them to achieve their goals will help prepare them mentally for the rocky road ahead.

Hard Times Ahead

Emotional Toughness

Emotional toughness is marked by flexibility, responsiveness, strength, and resiliency. Being able to recover from setbacks and having a strong belief in the ability to succeed are key. Positive reinforcement, social support and anxiety coping strategies are tools you can use to help your client build emotional toughness. Visualization of successful outcomes and mentally rehearsing are tools used by athletes to build confidence and overcome the emotional obstacles that undermine success.

Tough Workout

Bodily Toughness

Being well prepared and acting tough are identified by Loehr as elements of bodily toughness. As a trainer, you can help your client achieve bodily toughness by first laying a solid foundation of good mechanics and core strength. Applying excessive overload before your client is ready will result in a sense of failure and self-doubt. Focus on clean execution in the early stages of training and apply progressive overload as your client becomes stronger. Target the muscles of the core early on to prevent injury and to prepare your client for the challenges that lie ahead.


To learn more about helping your clients succeed, consider enrolling in the W.I.T.S Lifestyle Fitness Coaching course, available online.

References and Credits

James E. Loehr: The New Toughness Training for Sports: Mental Emotional Physical Conditioning from One of the World’s Premier Sports Psychologists.


Journal of Athletic Training: Development of the Mental, Emotional, and Bodily Toughness Inventory in Collegiate Athletes and Nonathletes.


*Images courtesy of

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Crash and Burn: Avoiding Overtraining Syndrome

It’s a Dirty Job

In the eyes of many, personal fitness training is viewed as a glamour job. Who wouldn’t love to wear stretch lycra and sneakers all day long, while chatting it up with athletes, luminaries and big wigs? But the truth is that personal training is hard, sweaty, dirty manual labor. Sure we love it, but it is not a career for the pampered masses. If you want to be a successful trainer with a full client load, prepare to spend hours each day demonstrating exercises and possibly teaching classes. You will literally lift tons of weight, lie on dirty floors, wipe up the sweat of strangers, hold your bladder until it aches, skip meals, and talk yourself hoarse. And you will be a prime candidate for overtraining syndrome.

workout guy

The Trainer’s Flu

Overtraining syndrome occurs as a result of an ongoing high volume training schedule with inadequate rest and recovery. The syndrome is commonly associated with elite athletes, but it is rampant in the fitness community. Symptoms are both physiological and psychological. According to researchers Kravitz and Kinucan at the University of New Mexico, early signs of overtraining syndrome include moodiness, depression, apathy and decreased motivation. In advanced stages, the immune system becomes suppressed and flu-like symptoms that include upper respiratory infection, achy muscles and joints, digestive distress, and fatigue begin to manifest. Weight loss, weight gain, disruption of sleep, decreased performance and increased blood pressure may occur. In women, amenorrhea is common.

diabetes exercise man

Sleep? What Sleep?

It is not uncommon for trainers to get up before the crack of dawn to meet with clients before their work day begins, and to leave the gym well after dark. By the time you get home, walk the dog, put the kids to bed and bathe yourself, you may be left with very little time for sleep. According to Researcher Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory, chronic sleep deprivation can result in decreased physical performance, impaired cognitive functioning, moodiness, and reduced reaction time. Coupled with over-training, sleep deprivation can send you into a downward spiral that could potentially destroy your career.

wits student clipboard

Balance is Key

Practicing balance in your daily job performance and in your life in general is important if you are to function at optimal levels. When demonstrating exercises and racking weights, make every effort to alternately load the left and right sides of your body. Take time to stretch throughout the day. Work periodic breaks into your daily schedule, and use them to nap or relax. Make sleep and self-care a priority. Eat wholesome foods at regular intervals throughout the day, drink plenty of water and take frequent bathroom breaks. Recognize early signs of overtraining syndrome in yourself, and take time off when you need it.


To learn more, consider enrolling in W.I.T.S Lifestyle Fitness Coaching, Nutritional Concepts and Personal Trainer Foundations courses, all available online.

References and Credits

University of New Mexico: Overtraining: Undermining Success?


The Huffington Post: Sleep And High Performance: What Olympic Athletes Know About Sleep.


*Images courtesy of

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New-Trition: Cleaning Up Your Act

Holiday Hangover

The winter holidays are often a barrage of non-stop feasting that spans from Thanksgiving to the Super Bowl. Week after week, you indulge yourself with goodies, justifying your poor food choices in the name of holiday cheer. You promise yourself to mend your ways as soon as the excitement dies down, but meanwhile the pounds creep on and bad nutrition becomes the new normal. Cleaning up your act is a process, but you can speed it up by taking some proactive steps.

diabetes whole foods

Let It Go

Gifts of food abound during the holidays, and if you are like me, you still have plenty of sweets, snacks and junk food in your fridge and cupboards. To get your diet back on track, begin by banishing the bad stuff. If you cannot bear to throw perfectly good food in the trash, donate to your local food bank or homeless shelter. Or throw one final bash, featuring your holiday stash of goodies as the main course. Clean and organize your refrigerator to make room for fresh produce, filtered water and whole foods. Rearrange your cupboards so that healthy food options are at eye level.

Clean Routine

Sugary foods and carbohydrate-laden snacks and meals are holiday mainstays that can wreak havoc with your insulin balance. Going cold turkey on the simple carbs can cause discomfort and cravings that last for two or three days, but it is one of the quickest ways to normalize your blood sugar and reset your metabolism. Adding high intensity exercise can speed up the process. Create a menu plan for your week that includes fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins, and stock your fridge with ingredients. Planning and preparing healthy snacks and meals ahead of time will keep you from being tempted to grab fast food.

Holiday Woman Eating


The end of the Holiday Season does not necessarily mark the end of the eating season. Valentine’s Day and Girl Scout Cookies loom on the horizon. Prepare for the onslaught by making committed decisions in advance. Instead of preparing special foods for Valentine’s Day, plan a romantic getaway or a movie date night. Ask your sweetie for flowers or jewelry instead of candy. Decide ahead of time to purchase only one box of Girl Scout cookies, and ration them out at the rate of one cookie per day. If you want to help out the Scouts, they accept donations in lieu of a cookie purchase.


Get Smart

To get a better grasp on healthful nutrition, consider enrolling in the W.I.T.S “Nutritional Concepts” continuing education course.


Images courtesy of

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Fresh: Letting Go to Begin Anew

Snow Day

As I write this post, the ground outside my window is covered in a fresh blanket of snow, pristine and unmarred by footprints or tire tracks. I know that before the day is out, it will be well trampled and traveled, but for the moment, it is a clean blank slate of glimmering white. To me, the fluffy fresh blanket seems an apt metaphor for new beginnings. We begin each year with hopes for greater prosperity, better health, and happier lives. But unless we act to make those things happen, we will be disappointed.

winter lady

The Dirt Beneath the Surface

Just beneath the surface of fresh snow lies the dirt of yesterday. Dead leaves, mud and litter have been hidden from view, soon to be revealed at the first melt. In a similar way, we often carry the dirt of the past with us into our new beginnings. Holding on to feelings of fear, shame, un-forgiveness and self-doubt, we set ourselves up for failure by allowing our old selves to tarnish our dreams and goals for the future.

Clearing the Way

In order to move forward and attain a better brighter tomorrow, you must first let go of the past. You cannot change it, and in truth, it no longer exists unless you continue to breathe life into it by revisiting it. In an article in Psychology Today, author Dr. Judith Sills recommends getting rid of things from your past that may keep you from moving ahead. Photos, memorabilia, even furniture can be constant reminders of past hurts and failures. Discarding them, or at least putting them out of sight, can help you move forward. Dr. Sills also recommends reaching out to heal broken or tarnished relationships as an important strategy for moving forward.

winter tree

Fresh Beginnings

Starting over can be difficult, but looking forward instead of back is fundamental to success. Visualization is a powerful tool that can transform your mindset and put you on the path to a better life. Imagine your future as you would like it to be, and color the picture in your mind with sights, smells, sounds and feelings. Allow yourself to daydream, banishing any negative thoughts from your reverie. Take time each day to count your blessings and express gratitude for the good things already present in your life. Only by changing your thinking can you truly begin to change your life.


Psychology Today: Let it Go!

*Images courtesy of

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Trending Now: Fitness 2015

What’s Hot, What’s Not

Just when we think we’ve seen it all in the world of fitness, the earth shifts and something new and exciting crops up to keep us on our toes. Over the past few decades, innovations in fitness have blazed the trail for higher levels of performance and increasingly better quality of life. In 2015, the upward spiral continues as new and exciting trends are sweeping the globe. Even the old becomes new, as fads of the past like step and classic aerobics  classes are given a shiny new patina by fitness geniuses who know how to keep our hearts pounding to the beat.

no time

It’s About Time

Lack of time is the number one reason given for not exercising, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No more excuses! The hottest fitness trends are geared toward gettin’ her done in record time. HIIT and Tabata are still going strong, and video is killing the group-ex star, as online workouts that can be done at home shave precious minutes off our daily schedules. If you are a trainer, you can work smarter instead of harder by offering shorter sessions that get the job done. Be a training genius by offering short group sessions.

Kids Rock and So Does Pop

With our ever growing obesity crisis, kids take center stage in the fitness market. Make it fun and entertaining, and you will be setting your little protégés up for success! Older adults are the fastest growing demographic in fitness clubs, and they are ripe for the picking. A little education goes a long way, and getting certified to train this awesome generation may be your smartest career move in 2015!

family dad and son

Turn Up the Tech

Technology has pervaded virtually every aspect of our lives, and fitness is no exception. From heart rate monitors to pedometers, Tabata timers to calorie trackers, smart devices are stepping into the fitness arena. Finding creative ways to incorporate tech into your training protocols will make you look like a fitness rock star

smart fitness

Get on the Trend Train

In the daily grind, it’s easy to forget that we are privileged to work in the b
est industry ever, and it hasn’t reached its zenith. Why not start the New Year off with a new certification? Personal Trainer, Group Fitness, Older Adult, Lifestyle Fitness Coach, Fitness Management and other certifications are all just a click away! Need more money? Try some of our savvy business courses! Lets keep the trend train going, and make 2015 the best year in fitness yet!


American College of Sports Medicine: Survey Predicts Top 20 Fitness Trends for 2015


American Council on Exercise: 10 Fitness Trends to Look Out For in 2015


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Physical Activity


International Business Times: 5 Fitness Trends To Expect In 2015




*Photos courtesy of

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When Dreams Become Goals, Miracles Happen! Thoughts for You and Your Clients!

When Dreams Become Goals, Miracles Happen!

Dreams versus Goals

The difference between living the life of your dreams and only dreaming about it often boils down to clarity. For example, you may dream of living in a spacious house in an upscale neighborhood, driving a nice car and taking luxurious vacations in exotic locations. But unless you can clarify your dream life in terms of time, dollars and the steps you must take to attain it, it will remain in the dream zone.

dream vacation

Moving Out of the Dream Zone

To realize your dream, begin with some research. What is the median market price of homes in the neighborhood you want to live in? How much would the mortgage payment be?  What would the monthly payment and insurance fees be on that dream car? How much will it cost to take your dream vacation? Breaking your dreams down in terms of dollars lends clarity and gives you a foundation upon which to structure your goals.


Reality Check

Once you clarify your dream, it’s time for a reality check. Get out your calculator, because this is where you need to do the math. Given your current income and circumstances, what will it take to make your dream attainable? You may need a different job, more education, or an additional source of income. You should also take a close look at your current budget and spending habits. What are you willing to give up in the short run in order to attain your long term goals?

Moving Into the End Zone

The final step in transforming your dreams into goals is to construct a timeline. Accept the fact that your dream life may be many months or even years away. Begin with the big picture of your dream life at the end of your timeline, then work backwards. Which events must occur, and in what order? If education is a part of your goal, when will you begin, and how long will it take? If you need a better paying job, what is your strategy for obtaining one, and when will you get started? Creating a timeline and defining your steps shifts your dream into the goal zone.


Eyes on the Prize

Long term goals require patient persistence. Staying motivated and enduring setbacks takes determination and commitment. Set yourself up for success by using motivational strategies such as discipline, positive imagery, and inspirational quotes. Create an image file of photos depicting your dream life and visit it daily. Reward yourself when you reach milestones on your timeline. Cultivate relationships that are supportive and energizing, and steer clear of negative and time consuming relationships that drain you. Find role models and follow them on social media. Feed your positive energy by exercising, eating healthful foods and getting enough sleep. Practice gratitude for what you now have, and be thankful along each step of the way to your dream life.


Allegheny College: 12 Strategies for Motivation that Work


Smart Goals Guide: Eight Top Goal Setting Strategies


Images courtesy of stockimages at

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Making Your Workout Work: Anatomy of A Fitness Plan

Goals Need a Plan

Happy 2015! If you are like so many Americans, you probably made a pledge to yourself to work out more this year. But it is a well-documented statistic that the average person’s New Year’s resolution to get fit will fizzle within the first six months. According to Len Kravitz, PhD of the University of New Mexico, lack of time is a common excuse among exercise dropouts, and planning, organizing and prioritizing exercise are key to adhering to a regular exercise routine.

Identify Essential Components

Happy workout girl







Showing up at the gym each day is not enough to make your workout work. You need to identify the essential components of fitness, then devise a weekly schedule to implement them. The American College of Sports Medicine has established guidelines for exercise success. For optimal fitness, you should perform 20 to 60 minutes of rhythmic aerobic exercise like walking, running, cycling or swimming three to five days per week; do at least one set of eight to10 exercises that condition all your major muscle groups on two to three non-consecutive days per week; and perform stretches for all your major muscle groups on at least two to three days per week.

Devise a Schedule

Once you understand the fundamentals, you can easily plug them into your personal weekly schedule. For example, you could plan to do aerobic exercise on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and one weekend day, and to do resistance training and stretching on Tuesday and Thursday. Or you could do your cardio in the morning, and stretching and resistance training in the afternoon or evening. You could break your resistance training into muscle groups, doing chest, triceps and shoulder exercises on one day, back and biceps on another day, and legs on a third day. The possibilities are endless.

family muscles


Make Time

While lack of time may seem like a legitimate excuse for skipping your workout, the poor health that results from a sedentary lifestyle will ultimately rob you of quality time. If going to the gym takes you away from your family, consider doing a daily family exercise session at home. Not only will you become more fit, but you will teach your children a valuable life lesson about self-care. Another strategy is to break your daily exercise into manageable chunks, rather than doing all of it in one extended session. A 15 minute walk or run before work, another during your lunch break, and another after work can add up to significant fitness gains.


To learn more about obtaining optimal physical well-being, consider enrolling in the W.I.T.S Certified Personal Trainer course, or the Lifestyle Fitness Coaching course, both available online.


W.I.T.S. is pleased to introduce our new blogger, Michelle Matte CSCS.  Michelle will be sharing her personal, professional, and educational experiences in her biweekly posts!  

– See more at:


Len Kravitz, PhD: Exercise Motivation: What Starts and Keeps People Exercising?


American College of Sports Medicine: Position Stand


American College of Sports Medicine: Resistance Training for Health and Fitness