Written by Kathryn Lekas, Editor-in-Chief
Photography by Paul Buceta
Hair & Makeup by Monica Kalra
You only live once, but don’t expect to hear “YOLO” coming out of Rita Catolino’s mouth in defense of poor nutrition or lack of training and movement. After almost two decades in the fitness industry, this veteran—who has already graced seven magazine covers, represented Canada on the international fitness stage, and built a sought-after coaching business transforming the lives of countless women—has learned through experience that a commitment to balance really is the key to building the body you want, loving life, and longevity. It’s a perspective that keeps Rita looking and feeling phenomenal in her forties, and has gotten her through infertility and stage 2 melanoma while caring for her kids.
“I was raised with everything but fitness,” admits Rita. “I didn’t play any sports, it never entered my parents’ minds to sign me up, fitness just wasn’t a thing in my house,” she says. “I grew up watching my mom struggle doing every diet imaginable. She was so successful with her career and her family, but with fitness, she always struggled. So I had always assumed that was just my deck of cards, too. I didn’t think there was another possibility for me.” Until, at age 26, when she had her first child, Ariana. “When Ariana was born, I just thought, ‘Why can’t I?’ Something with her birth just made me feel like I was going to do this.”
I’ve never felt healthier or happier, now at 43.
And did she ever. To this day Rita is grateful for the transformative blessing her daughter delivered. “When Ariana was six weeks old, I signed up for a postpartum mom and baby fitness class and something just lit up. I guess it was my first taste of endorphins,” she laughs. “When I was in the gym I saw all these sculpted women and I literally went from doing nothing physically, to breast pumping at mommy and me fitness saying, ‘OMG, I want to look like that!’ It was so inspiring, and once I got into it, it became addictive—in a great way.”
Rita started with baby steps of her own. “I looked at the women I admired and approached them to ask questions about how. I started learning and I just threw myself into it.” Rita became so engrossed in her new lifestyle that eventually she left her teaching career to become a personal trainer, which felt like a natural fit for her. “I bought every fitness magazine, I became obsessed with health, and I even started imagining myself on a cover as I sat there breastfeeding Ariana.”
Along with the endorphin rush and increased strength, what Rita loved about fitness was how inclusive it is. “When I was young, media was bombarded with fashion images of only one particular body type which was pretty unattainable for the majority of women. If you weren’t super skinny, with a certain structure, chances are, you could never be like the women in all the photographs. But fitness wasn’t like that. By strategically approaching your nutrition and training, you could shape your physique. You could ‘body build.’”
One thing we do have the power to decide is our lifestyle choices, which help determine how we age, and the quality of our lives. So why wouldn’t we prioritize that while we can?
In 2009, a couple of years after having Ariana, Rita decided to jump into her first fitness competition. And it humbled her. “I placed about 25 out of 25,” she admits. “I felt very novice. I really didn’t know what I was doing when it came to contest prep for the stage, but I still felt proud because I followed through with my goal of getting up there.” What she did next was a testament to the kind of approach Rita continues to take with her life. She applied a growth mindset and committed to learning and improving. “I kept competing and with more knowledge and experience I started placing first overall, and even represented Canada at the Arnold’s in Europe in 2014,” says Rita. After about 17 shows over seven years, she decided to hang up her heels, though. “It became pretty intense at that level and really started to compromise what I thought fitness was. I felt my dedication to the elite competition experience was also taking away from my child and my family, so I preferred to redefine how fitness would be a part of my life.” It took her a while to reestablish her identity, as Rita had to reframe her perspective on what success looked like—literally.
Rita discovered that as she was aging she was naturally shifting from a focus on optics and being completely chiseled to functional fitness that would carry her through life in a healthful, sustainable, enjoyable way. In the process, she organically created a community for like-minded women who were eager to learn how to weave fitness into their evolving lives, too.
I want women to know I wasn’t born this way. It takes hard work to get and stay fit, but it’s worth it. You need to show up for yourself and your future.
“I’ve never felt healthier or happier, now at 43. Especially compared to when I started seriously competing in fitness at 29, because the protocols were extreme then. I always experienced a rebound after shows, yet they were the only way for me to adhere to a program because of the accountability, and it cost me a lot,” she says. “I lost my menstruation due to under eating and an extreme approach to training for contest prep, yet I still wanted to have another child. So, I spent nine years battling a lot of inner turmoil, and spent tens of thousands of dollars on specialists and treatments.” Rita struggled with IVF, adoption, and immense guilt at her earlier approach to fitness. At first, she drowned in self-blame and doctor appointments to try to remedy it all. “I had seen many doctors and they all suggested the same things: don’t exercise, do hormone replacement therapy or take pills, and they all concluded the same thing—my period wouldn’t come back, I wouldn’t get pregnant. But I cringed at all of that. I knew abolishing fitness altogether wasn’t the answer. Strength training is exactly that, strength training. It helped my body and mind. I knew I had the answer within—again, my future was not simply a set deck of cards. I knew I needed to try everything in my power to adapt my behavior to my goal and see how my body responded.” So, Rita took a step back from the excessive workouts she had been doing still chasing the stage body she was used to. “It had become a slippery slope, with too much HIIT (six or seven days), along with under eating and no carbs… I started there.” After a year committed to a holistic approach to fitness and health, Rita’s period came back, and after just three cycles, she got pregnant again. Rita welcomed her son Gabriel into the world with a newfound perspective that continues to shape her choices.
“In a metaphorical way, my children have been like bookends with my journey through fitness. Ariana ignited the fire for it, and Gabriel tamed the flame, resetting my hormones for the long run,” says Rita. “Since I had him, my cycle has been like clockwork, and my body and mind finally feel balanced.” It’s this sense of balance that Rita tries to teach her coaching clients. “You attract what you put out there,” she says, “and when I was uber-extreme, I attracted clients who craved competition. Now, I attract a lot of women who are at a similar stage in life to me, women who want that inclusivity and longevity. Don’t get me wrong, most women still appreciate a tight and toned physique and don’t dismiss the chance to sport abs if they can, but their fitness has broader purpose than the stage or spotlight, so that’s always what’s paramount when programming.”
Rita understands just how important it is for women to feel like they’re taking charge of their health. A few years ago, she was faced with stage 2 melanoma. “I went for a facial and the esthetician said, ‘I don’t like the way this mole looks,’ so I went to check it out and that led to finding another on my back that turned out to be stage 2 melanoma.” Rita went through surgery and had lymph nodes removed, and now she has it monitored every three months. “It was a reminder that we’re not invincible. That we have to be proactive about our health because there are so many things that can come up which we don’t have control over. One thing we do have the power to decide is our lifestyle choices, which help determine how we age, and the quality of our lives. So why wouldn’t we prioritize that while we can?”
Rita says all the challenges have gifted her with clarity about her belief system that is the foundation of her approach to her personal experiences and professional pursuits: Strength over struggle. “Even in the dark days, every single day I went to the gym because staying strong physically helps me manage through whatever difficulties come my way—like melanoma, infertility, and even when my dad was diagnosed with cancer—I went to the gym. Strength training is always my first choice of medicine.”
Rita is determined to keep getting the word out to help women everywhere become a stronger version of themselves. Not only with her one-on-one coaching, and group programs like, “Six Weeks to Sexy” which kicks off at the end of March and wraps with a photoshoot with STRONG Director of Photography Paul Buceta at the beginning of May, in an effort to extend her reach, she also wrote a book during the pandemic which has become a best seller in Europe (she’s considering releasing it in North America). “I share my story because I want women to know I wasn’t born this way. It takes hard work to get and stay fit, but it’s worth it. You need to show up for yourself and your future,” says Rita. It’s resonating. Even her mom has lost 30 pounds and keeps it off by walking every day, and centering her meals around protein—just like Rita.