Alyssa Guastella: Pumping iron –– and more
By Irene Sherlock

As an instructor in WestConn's Practical Strength
Training for Older Adults program, Alyssa Guastella educates seniors about ways to improve their overall health.

Alyssa Guastella is one of the most cheerful people anyone is likely to meet in a gym at 8 o’clock in the morning.

“How’s everyone today?” the diminutive student-trainer asks our dozen or so participants, the oldest of whom is 86. At 23, Guastella is the by far youngest person in the room, but it soon becomes apparent why she’s in charge.

“Watch your form!” For the next hour, she leads us through a series of bicep curls, overhead presses, squats, leg lifts and other exercises specific to every muscle group.

“She’s exceptional,” says regular Dan Genovese. “She knows everything about the way we should exercise and she always explains why.”

Three instructors teach in WestConn’s Practical Strength Training for Older Adults program. It’s offered to the AARP crowd three times a week, in the Bill Williams Gym at Midtown.

“She makes us sweat,” notes participant Carla Netto, WCSU’s associate registrar. “But she does make it fun!”

The class that Guastella has led for a year and a half is her first experience working with seniors. “I really didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “But I love this class. They’re funny and engaging and if one of them doesn’t show for a couple of weeks, I get worried. I’m hoping they’re on vacation.”

It’s no wonder that Professor of Health Promotion and Exercise Sciences (HPX) Dr. Jeff Schlicht, for whom Guastella conducts the class, describes her as an exceptional leader. “She’s skilled, empathetic and engaging –– perhaps the best student-teacher I’ve ever had,” he says.

It isn’t just WestConn’s HPX department that appreciates Guastella’s talent and passion for the field. Last year, she was honored with the 2010 Outstanding Future Professional Award from the Connecticut Chapter of the Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. She expects to graduate magna cum laude in 2011 with a double major: a B.S. in HPX, focus in Wellness Management, and a B.A. in Psychology.

“My psychology background has helped me appreciate the different ways we learn and change,” she explains. “For example, when it comes to exercise and health, we tend to have a self-serving bias. We think we’re healthier and more fit than we really are.”

As someone who regularly participates in her weight training class, I can attest that it feels okay to receive this kind of news from someone who is as effectively helpful (not to mention encouraging) as Guastella.

“Aside from quitting smoking, regular exercise is the best thing you can do to improve your health,” she says. “It reduces stress, anxiety and depression. It improves metabolic functions and the cardiovascular system, which translates to an overall reduced risk of disease.”

Guastella is a member of the Aerobic and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) and certified as a primary group exercise specialist. In the event any of her seniors need emergency attention, they can rest easier knowing she’s CPR-certified by the American Red Cross.

Last semester she interned at Take Care Health Systems, with an assignment at Boehringer Ingelheim in Ridgefield, Conn. Her task was no small deal: Assist in designing, implementing and evaluating wellness programs for Boehringer employees.  
“Alyssa came to us with strong organizational skills, overwhelming enthusiasm and an incredible ability to grasp and execute concepts quickly and efficiently,” says Jennifer Wurst, senior wellness specialist at Take Care Health Systems.
Denise Colaianni, internship coordinator for WCSU’s HPX department, concurs. “Alyssa has been involved in flu and mammography clinics and health fairs, just to mention a few programs. She is exceptionally passionate about the field of wellness management.”

Guastella works as a trainer and Pilates instructor at Olympus Personal Training and Weight Management in Danbury, Conn. She’s also a spinning instructor at the Fitness Studio in Ridgefield, Conn.

“A lot of clients just depend on me to help them get started,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to increase their self-efficacy. That way, they eventually become committed to exercising on their own.”

Olympus client Carol Meissner says working with Guastella has dramatically improved the quality of her life. “It’s the first time I’ve exercised with any regularity,” she says.

Meissner sees Guastella three times a week. “I started Pilates and I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been.” Guastella is precise, encouraging and downright inspiring, she reports, adding, “Some days I think I’m a trapeze artist; other days, a ballerina. However she does it, it’s magic.”

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