Gladys Santiago: “Move more in whatever way you find fun”

Move more in whatever way you find fun. I have banned the word exercise at my fitness studio. Exercise is associated with pain, obligation, and drudgery when it should be fun! When something is fun, it is easier to do it more. Eventually it becomes a habit. But the key is fun. Fun lowers the […]

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Move more in whatever way you find fun. I have banned the word exercise at my fitness studio. Exercise is associated with pain, obligation, and drudgery when it should be fun! When something is fun, it is easier to do it more. Eventually it becomes a habit. But the key is fun. Fun lowers the amount of will power required to stick with it.

So many of us have tried dieting. All too often though, many of us lose 10–20 pounds, but we end up gaining it back. Not only is yo-yo dieting unhealthy, it is also demoralizing and makes us feel like giving up. What exactly do we have to do to achieve a healthy body weight and to stick with it forever?

In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Do To Achieve A Healthy Body Weight And Keep It Permanently” we are interviewing health and wellness professionals who can share lessons from their research and experience about how to do this.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gladys Santiago.

Gladys Santiago is co-founder of Worth The Fight Boxing & Fitness Studio in Denver. Gladys was inspired to open WTF after losing 120+ pounds through diet and exercise and keeping it off for 10 years and counting. She wanted to bring the dramatic transformation she experienced to others, so she distilled the actions she took to lose weight and keep it off into five steps anyone can follow. Gladys previously had a career in marketing in New York City, most recently as a marketing director at Comedy Central.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Brooklyn before it was trendy and lived in New York City all my life until moving to Denver a few years ago. I still consider New York the best city in the world. In college, I developed a fascination with marketing. While studying at NYU, I identified a spin on the traditional product placement that I termed “product displacement” — when a show includes a humorous spin on a product (e.g., a bottle of Vitamin Water labeled “Meat Water”). It is like an inside joke with the audience. This engages the audience and helps them remember the product better than the traditional product placement. The concept caught on, and several articles were written about it.

I went on to a career in marketing analytics. I left marketing in 2019 to launch my fitness studio, WTF Boxing & Fitness Studio. I always wanted to put my chops to the test as an entrepreneur, and boxing played a pivotal role in my own weight loss journey, so I wanted to bring that experience to others, especially those struggling with their weight.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I became interested in marketing and analytics in college. I co-authored multiple marketing-related papers in college and grad school. I love the science and data of marketing analytics, but I also love marketing strategy and the creative side of marketing. (I came up with our name “Worth The Fight” and I create all the graphics/art for our business — I taught myself graphic design and animation in the past year!) My career ended up being on the analytics side, but now that I have my own business, I am diving headfirst into marketing strategy. I love it! I come up with tons of marketing ideas and then we test them all to see what works best. Most fitness businesses rely primarily on digital ads to generate leads, but I believe that it is very risky to depend that heavily on a third party that can make decisions like, say, cutting ad inventory in half, raising prices significantly. Also, our business is a local independent small business, so we want our marketing efforts to be local too — in person.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My grandmother inspires me every day. As a Puerto Rican woman in the 1960s and 1970s, she was a publishing executive in a field dominated by white men. I ran into struggles in my career as a gay Puerto Rican woman, and having her example gave me strength and inspiration to keep moving forward, knowing that the challenges she faced were much greater!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

During my career in marketing, I was working at a big TV network when I was offered an executive-track job at a smaller TV network from a woman who really liked me and believed in me. She said she would be my mentor. Everyone at my job at the big TV network told me not to take the job because the network was smaller and less popular. In retrospect, it was a huge mistake. I missed out on a great promotion that would have accelerated my career and an opportunity to learn a lot, not to mention the mentorship and support of the woman who offered me the job. I learned that you should not always take advice from others, and I learned not to make decisions based on prestige. I let myself be influenced by other people. They meant well, but it was still the wrong decision.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Stronger than yesterday” — Britney Spears. This encompasses the idea of progress, of striving every day to keep moving forward, of not becoming satisfied with what you have achieved and ceasing to try. It also reminds me that we can emerge from struggles and obstacles as stronger and more resilient than we were before. It resonates with me because I faced and overcame so many challenges (e.g., being a gay Puerto Rican woman, being obese, etc.) by never giving up even when things moved sideways or backward. Consistency over perfection.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

We are launching our boxing fitness and HIIT studio, Worth The Fight Boxing & Fitness in Denver. Boxing fitness was key to my transformation from an obese woman to a very fit woman, and it was also key to building my self-esteem and empowering me, and I want to share that with others.

Yes, there are many fitness studios out there, but ours is different for several reasons. We believe in strengthening the mental as much as the physical. We focus on empowerment and building confidence — hence our choice of boxing and our name “Worth The Fight”. We want our members to feel that they are worth the fight. Also, we believe that elitism does not belong in fitness. You should not feel like you must get in shape before you can go to your fitness studio. Our studio is accepting and non-judgmental.

We are also all about our local community and always looking to get them involved and give back. For example, this summer we have been doing free fitness membership, and we also plan to donate the net proceeds of late cancel fees and no-show fees to local charities. I care about every member, and I know them. They are not just dollar signs to me. Nothing makes me happier than seeing members achieving their fitness goals. That connection between us and our members is so important. There is nothing chain or franchise about us. Lastly, we have a specific philosophy about how to achieve long term weight loss or other fitness goals (as described further below) based on my own experience losing over 120 pounds, and that is woven into our coaching and programming.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field?

The voices we hear from the fitness and diet industry are disproportionately people who have never struggled with their weight. They have good genetics and do not understand the struggle. Look at influencers in this industry — they are almost all young, fit people. The predominant message is calories in, calories out, but sometimes things are more complicated than that. That is not helpful for all people, and I believe it causes shame. It is a shaming tactic.

I struggled with my weight growing up. I used to be over 120 pounds heavier. I tried many programs, gyms, supplements, etc. and nothing helped. I eventually figured out on my own how to lose weight sustainably and keep it off through lifestyle modifications. The information, recommendations, and products coming from the fitness and diet industry were not helpful to me, and I know there are other people like me out there.

As a result of my experience of losing weight and getting fit, I was inspired to open my fitness studio WTF Boxing to help other people achieve their weight and fitness goals. I distilled what I did to lose weight into steps that anyone can follow, which I have laid out below. My steps take psychology into account to prevent our psychology from working against us.

I want to throw my voice into this because I have been there, and I know the challenges and struggles intimately, and I think we should hear more from people like me.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about achieving a healthy body weight. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Healthy Body Weight”?

There is no simple formula. Formulas like BMI are not terrible rules of thumb but have been shown to not be good references for all people. In my opinion, it is more about inputs (i.e., do you have healthy habits?) and function (i.e., is your body functioning properly?).

You are at a healthy body weight if (1) you are eating a generally healthy diet* and working out regularly (the inputs), and (2) your body can perform your daily tasks; your body is free of conditions linked to being overweight or underweight; and you feel good mentally or physically (the functions).

*A healthy diet is not easy to define as it depends on the individual. A nutritionist can help an individual determine the diet that is right for them.

How can an individual learn what is a healthy body weight for them? How can we discern what is “too overweight” or what is “too underweight”?

As I described, I think it is about analyzing your habits and your body’s functioning. Are you eating a healthy diet and getting enough movement? Are you able to go about your daily life without impediments related to your weight? Do you have enough energy? Do you feel good mentally? Do your doctors say you should lose or gain weight? Are you free of conditions related to being overweight or underweight?

If so, then your weight is just a number. It is very possible to be 5’5″ and 170 pounds and be in shape and healthy.

I do not think it is that important to pin down a “healthy bodyweight” number in most cases. Worrying about numbers puts you at risk for developing eating disorders. Focusing on inputs and outputs is safer and can get you to the same place. Pay attention to how you feel. For me it was very noticeable going from being obese to being a normal weight — I had so much more energy; I had more confidence; l felt stronger; I was no longer depressed or anxious. This is more important than the number on the scale.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Can you please share a few reasons why being over your healthy body weight, or under your healthy body weight, can be harmful to your health?

Being overweight comes with an elevated risk of many conditions, including diabetes, liver disease, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea, kidney failure and, according to some studies, shortened lifespan. It is also associated with other things that can negatively impact your health, such as poor sleep quality and depression and anxiety. It can be harder to get through daily tasks. You may have less energy and lower mood. Being overweight is associated with lower self-esteem. Studies have shown that it can be harder to be hired if you are overweight. Of course, this should not happen, but it does. Obese women experience infertility at a greater rate than women of normal weight. Carrying extra weight also places extra strain on your joints and bones.

On the flip side, being underweight is associated with lower than ideal consumption of vitamins and minerals and macronutrients (i.e., proteins, fats, carbohydrates). The lack of critical vitamins can interfere with your body growing properly. Prolonged under consumption of vitamins and macronutrients can lead to malnutrition and developmental issues. Underweight women can experience reproductive issues and infertility due to hormone imbalances caused by their low weight. When you are underweight, you lack energy and experience fatigue as a result of low fat stores. Low iron levels can exacerbate this fatigue. Low weight is also associated with depression and higher risk of suicide.

In contrast, can you help articulate a few examples of how a person who achieves and maintains a healthy body weight will feel better and perform better in many areas of life?

You will have enough energy to get through your day. You will be equipped physically and psychologically to perform the tasks of the day. You will not be fatigued. You will feel confident and strong. You will have good self-esteem. You will not be depressed or anxious because of your weight, and you will be better able to handle stress. Your weight can impact almost every area of your life. Losing weight was deeply transformative for me. It touched almost every part of my life.

Ok, fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Do To Achieve a Healthy Body Weight And Keep It Permanently?”. If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Start with small achievable changes.

Studies have shown that will power is like a muscle — it can get tired. Making big sweeping changes to your diet and exercise regimen is putting yourself at risk of failing because it overwhelms your will power. Maybe you make it a month with your new strict regimen, but eventually you tire your discipline out and binge on sweets or stop exercising, and you give up your efforts. We have all experienced this. This is how people end up yo-yo dieting.

Small achievable changes avoid the issue of exhausting your will power because they do not require nearly as much of it. I recommend picking a change that is relatively easy for you because it is important psychologically to get that initial validation of “hey I can do this”.

You can build your will power up through practice. It is similar to strengthening your physical muscles. You do not go straight for the heaviest weight. You start small. As you make small changes, you build discipline and motivation slowly to tackle the harder changes. The small successes make you feel accomplished and build motivation.

For example, my first step was switching from sugar soda to diet. I did nothing else. (Later on, I switched to stevia-based soda which I think is better than regular diet soda.) I was not even drinking that much soda, but this small change led to me losing substantial weight. Seeing the results excited me and motivated me to keep trying to lose weight and get fitter. Now I am in great shape, and it all stemmed from that one small change.

After you have successfully completed your first small change for several weeks, introduce a second small change etc. If you fail to stick with your small changes, do not beat yourself up (see step #5!). Just recommit and choose an even smaller change if needed. Remember that sustained healthy weight is a lifetime project. There is no rush. Slowly introducing small changes is critical to long-term success. Basically, the process to lose weight sustainably is the antithesis of the quick fixes pushed by the diet industry.

2. Move more in whatever way you find fun.

I have banned the word exercise at my fitness studio. Exercise is associated with pain, obligation, and drudgery when it should be fun! When something is fun, it is easier to do it more. Eventually it becomes a habit. But the key is fun. Fun lowers the amount of will power required to stick with it.

I recharacterize exercise as “move more in whatever way you find most enjoyable”. What ways do you like to move? Be creative! There are thousands of ways to move, everything from dancing alone to yardwork/gardening to building houses for Humanity. It does not need to be running on the treadmill.

Add more of that movement in your life. Ask yourself how can you make that movement even more fun? For example, if you plan to hike, bring a friend or listen to a podcast or bring a camera to take pictures — whatever you would find fun. The key is to stop thinking about it as exercise that you dread and start thinking about it as something fun that you get to do.

For me, this was biking. After quitting sugar soda, the next step I took on my weight loss journey was starting to bike. I biked every day because I loved riding through the streets of New York City. I rushed home from work so that I could bike as long as possible. I lost even more weight, but it was not only about that — it was also the fun and freedom of it. This kickstarted my deep love of working out.

3. Be consistent, not perfect. Indulge yourself.

It is a trap to try to do your diet and workout regimen perfectly. Striving for perfection puts you at risk of failure for the same reason as quick fixes and unsustainable diet/workout plans do. No one can do anything perfectly forever. Your will power will get exhausted if you aim for perfection, and you get frustrated when you fail. Frustration is a dangerous place to be with something like weight loss. That is when you are at risk of bingeing and giving up.

Rather than frustration, you want to feel accomplished and motivated. The way you do that is having attainable goals — stick to your regimen consistently, not perfectly. Consistency is attainable. Stressful things will happen, and you will reach for comfort food. You will get injured and not be able to work out. You must take these things in stride and get back on track when you can. Think progress, not perfection.

I believe it is critical to long term sustained weight loss to occasionally eat treats and not workout. You need to be aware of your body and what is going on in your life. If you never treat yourself and never deviate from your workout schedule, you are highly likely to eventually fail in your efforts. That is why I believe you must indulge yourself from time to time to maintain a healthy weight long-term.

I struggle with this one myself. I want to do my diet and exercise regimen perfectly, but I have to face the fact that this is not realistic. My wife reminds me that I should be enjoying my life, and that includes occasional treats and indulgences. After all, what is the point of all this effort of losing weight and keeping it off if you can’t enjoy your life because you are following such a strict regimen?

4. Create accountability.

Accountability is a finger on the scale to help you better stick with your diet and exercise goals. This is a way of juicing your will power to make it go further. Analyze what you struggle with the most. Is it sticking with your workout regimen? Avoiding a certain snack? Whatever is your Achilles heel, try adding accountability to help you stick with your goals better. For example, plan to meet a friend for your workout if you are inconsistent with your workout plan. You can get creative here. My co-founder’s mother enjoys using an app where you compete against a group of people to lose the most weight and whoever wins gets a pot of money.

I created accountability in several ways. I scheduled workouts with friends and family, which helped me to stick with working out. There was a bonus in making the workouts more fun and helping my friends and family get healthier. I have had friends who joined weight loss support groups which is another way to create accountability. Also, mentoring someone else who is trying to lose weight is another way to create accountability. When someone is looking up to you, it gives you motivation to be a good example.

5. Do not beat yourself up. Learn to manage your emotions.

If you stop following your diet and exercise regimen, do not beat yourself up. Beating yourself up is just exacerbating your predicament. People who have struggles around their weight can relate to the pattern of sticking with a regimen for a few weeks, maybe seeing some results, until your will power fails you in a major way and you tell yourself “forget it” before quitting your efforts entirely. The last part is what you want to avoid. Beating yourself up gives you fodder for quitting. Understand that mistakes happen. Backslides happen. The important thing is how you respond. Just recommit yourself to your plan and get back on the horse the next day. Do not wallow and do not be overly critical.

Studies have shown that stress and upset make it harder to exert will power. Therefore, managing emotions and stress (thereby maximizing your will power) is critical to sustaining a healthy weight long term. There are so many ways to do this — everything from meditation to attending church to therapy to AA meetings (the strategies from AA meetings can be used by anyone to manage emotion). Pick whatever works for you, but you should be striving to learn to control your emotions.

The emphasis of this series is how to maintain an ideal weight for the long term, and how to avoid yo-yo dieting. Specifically, how does a person who loses weight maintain that permanently and sustainably?

To maintain your weight loss, you need to lose weight in a sustainable way. If you lose weight in a way that is not sustainable — basically any quick fix — your will power will eventually fail. Before I lost weight for good, I tried all sorts of quick fixes, and sometimes I lost weight for a little while, but I always gained it back. What changed things for me was making slow changes over time, having small victories, and building up my will power and motivation over time to tackle larger changes.

Small achievable changes become habits, and then you move to next small change until that becomes a habit, etc. The key is to keep these changes doable and to be gentle with yourself if you fail and to recommit to your efforts instead of letting yourself just give up. This is a lifelong project. It is not going to happen in six weeks or even six months. Also, keep in mind that even if you do not reach what you believe to be your ideal weight, even losing 20 pounds can make a big difference in your health and how you feel. It is still worth doing.

What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to lose weight? What errors cause people to just snap back to their old unhealthy selves? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?

People really want to lose weight through quick fixes and shortcuts whether that is super strict diets, crazy exercise regimens, juice cleanses, weight loss pills/supplements, etc. Most products sold by the weight loss industry fall into this category. It is very understandable why people want to lose weight through quick fixes — you think you will get what you want more quickly and with less effort, except that these quick fixes do not work.

Ask yourself — if there was a weight loss quick fix that did work, would 70% of Americans be overweight? That is all you need to know to realize that the stuff hocked by the weight loss industry is mostly useless. Unfortunately, I do not believe there are any shortcuts to long term weight management other than hard work, day in and day out. You need to accept that. There is no point in buying quick fix weight loss products.

Another mistake people make is they are too strict with themselves. As mentioned, studies have found that will power is like a muscle — it can get exhausted. This means that it is not possible to perfectly perform a weight loss regimen. Go for consistency, not perfection. Plan to make changes over a long period of time. Your goal is to keep moving generally in the right direction.

How do we take all this information and integrate it into our actual lives? The truth is that we all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

People try to make big sweeping changes and they rush. They overwhelm their will power. They do not have the motivation to make big changes yet. Then they get frustrated and give up. My motivation and discipline slowly built up over time. Once I built it up, it stayed consistent. I think the reason people fail in their efforts to get healthier is because they do not understand how our psychology impacts these efforts. They try to make changes in a manner that practically guarantees that they will fail eventually. Try making really small changes instead. You need to accept that this will not be a quick process but rather lifelong.

Also, people do not recognize that our will power will be lower when we are under stress. That can be stress on our emotion or on our time. In these times of lowered will power, we will not be as capable of sticking with our weight management routines, and that is okay. There is nothing inherently wrong with using food as a comfort so long as it is not too frequent. People get frustrated at themselves when they fail to stick with the goals they have set out for themselves.

On the flip side, how can we prevent these ideas from just being trapped in a rarified, theoretical ideal that never gets put into practice? What specific habits can we develop to take these intellectual ideas and integrate them into our normal routine?

Follow the 5 steps I outlined — those are very action-oriented. These steps are based on the actions I took to lose and keep off 120 pounds. They are distilled from action, not theory. Later, I researched the theory, but the action came first. It is nice to have the framework of understanding about will power and how it is like a muscle, can get exhausted, etc. But for the most part weight management is action. You technically do not even need theory at all.

Do not wait until you get motivation. Instead start with something that does not take much motivation and build your motivation up through small successes. You can build motivation from taking action; the success of your actions will increase your motivation to tackle the next thing. It is worth even getting part way to your goal. You will have a better quality of life. In other words, do what you can do. Do what is achievable. Take a small action today. Do not overthink it. If you fall off the horse, get back on tomorrow. That is all I did on my way to losing and keeping off 120 pounds.

Also, if you have any questions, please reach out to me at [email protected]. If you are in Denver, come try a class at my studio Worth The Fight and I will help you. Trust me, I have been there.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

One issue I am passionate about is getting more gender and racial equity in venture capital and startup funding. Most venture dollars go to men. When you are starting a business, capital is everything. If you do not have it or cannot get it, you are dead on arrival. The fact that few women or BIPOC founders get angel and VC dollars is a big barrier to getting more equity in entrepreneurship. In fact, the whole venture industry (including the VC general partners, their limited partner investors, and the founders they invest in) is not diverse, and that needs to change.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I would love to have a breakfast with Oprah Winfrey. She is a BIPOC female founder and she has struggled with her weight, like me. She has the extra struggle of that weight loss journey being very public.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on Instagram @worththefightboxing or on Facebook at @wtfboxing. You can subscribe to my newsletter on my website. You can reach out to me at [email protected]. If you are in Denver, come by and take a class at Worth The Fight! But I also welcome questions and comments from people anywhere in the world — I would love to help!

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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