Gitamba Saila-Ngita is a 32-year-old strategist and designer in New York. Gitamba is an avid gym-goer, which makes his story especially relatable, and extra intriguing. Maintaining a consistent gym routine is a perennial struggle for many people, and Gitamba’s perspective on the gym is, I believe, truly unique. The way he frames his time spent there is something that can reshape how many of us think about that particular place. His experiences overcoming extreme physical challenges, as well as some of the insights he’s gleaned from his professional work make for an all around compelling take on fitness and gym culture.
WB: Tell me a little bit about what your main activities are, and how you managed to establish the habit of consistently doing them.
GSN: I go to the gym. I started going because I realized that I was in meetings all day sitting, and I wasn’t eating very healthy. My weight fluctuated pretty badly.
The biggest thing in terms of starting the habit was drilling into myself that it was a behavior change. I also realized that my mobile phone was a huge thing — I could rely on it to keep track and motivate me. The gym became a place where, over time, I could have “me” time. It was meditative, and necessary. It made my day better when I’d go to the gym.
WB: How has it become a meditative experience for you?
GSN: Working out increased my adrenaline; I got more energy. My brain felt better. I had that hour and a half to think about the day, work through some problems. Once that started becoming the payoff, that really changed my behavior. It became, I have to go to the gym, not because I need to work off something I ate, but because I didn’t get that important time to myself!
WB: You had cancer several years ago, right?
GSN: Yeah, at 16 I was diagnosed with a bone tumor in my right knee. I had a lot of surgeries to rebuild it. That’s a lot of atrophy, a lot of relearning how to walk. My last knee surgery was a total knee replacement. It’s definitely affected how I’m active. I used to do a lot of contact sports stuff. Before the surgery there was wrestling, lacrosse.
WB: How has it shaped your journey, your definition of health and fitness?
GSN: Working out and playing sports, it was the place I went to build my muscles. It was “the muscle building place.” Now, there’s been a shift. I look at a lot of my friends who are younger, doing the young man’s approach to things and I’m like “You’re going to destroy your body!” I say it from a place of love, only because I think that when you start to realize what you need in life, it starts to become really easy to carve out the time to turn off. Especially when you have the time to yourself to think through problems, you start to realize how simple it is to focus on what’s important and what’s needed. You can have a conversation with yourself in a calm manner. You know you can go to the gym for an hour and a half and feel great, and then take on the rest of the day. You can detach from it in a healthy way.
WB: As someone who works at the intersection of design, marketing, and technology, and uses it a lot in your fitness regimen, I’m interested to get your thoughts on the products and messages about fitness that are out there.
GSN: The one thing that I’ve learned about the industry is that it assumes too much. For instance, there is no good way to assess ability. Some people can do more reps, but some people are more flexible, and then other people have bad knees! Also, the marketing of fitness is intimidating. It markets the end result of all the work. But the reality is that it’s a process, you have to take time. You’ll have cycles of going up and down where you’re super positive, then super negative. So approaching fitness can be wicked intimidating.
It’s what sells; we have to sell you the aspirational aspect. That’s what’s so hard — it’s not an instant gratification thing. It’s going to require work, it requires finding the right thing for you out of a lot of options. That’s part of the problem with the instantaneous culture: people forget that some things take time.
WB: Back to your fitness experience — what have you derived from a physical and emotional standpoint from exercise?
GSN: An increase in confidence. I feel better, healthier, lighter. You start to work hard and you start noticing changes in your body, so you eat better, your clothes fit differently. The real change starts to happen when other people notice, that boosts your confidence too. Also, living in NYC, walking up the walkups feels different. I’m not winded. It’s been a transformation. Exercise and going to the gym for me has been where I find food for my body and comfort for my troubled mind. I’m healthier, and my mind is cleaner.
WB: Are there mantras, rituals, things that you do to keep yourself in a positive mind/body place?
GSN: My brain is attracted to listening to lectures. That’s why I like podcasts for when I’m working out. The storytelling aspect lets me detach from the physical pain. That other part of my brain listens to the story, and then another part of my brain is trying to solve a work problem. I can step away from the work, step away from life problems, come to this place where they’re there but I can work through them.
WB: How do you define the words “healthy” and “fit” for yourself? How are they different or similar from society and pop culture’s definitions?
GSN: First of all, it’s marketed as expensive to be fit and healthy. I think that is the very first thing that I want to rebel and rail against. It shouldn’t be. One thing people don’t realize is, if you just walk for 30 minutes a day, that’s not bad exercise. But most people, especially when you go into the suburbs, aren’t even doing that. You’re probably sitting for hours on end. I think a lot of what healthy is marketed as is very restrictive: it’s an expensive gym membership, it’s buying gadgets, apps and videos. A lot of undoing this is education. If you’re educated, you’ll start to notice that it doesn’t require a lot to be fit.
WB: What ultimate parting words of wisdom would you give to someone trying to live a healthier lifestyle?
GSN: Give yourself a week to set a behavior. Go to the gym for a week straight. If you did it for a week, you can do it again. Set goals. Set challenges. It feels good to accomplish them. Change takes time though. It’ll be 30 days before you notice it and another 30 before anyone else notices it. Spend time finding other ways to stay active — not just the gym, but hiking, biking, walks, anything that gets you active for a few minutes a day. Find ways to make it fun.