Streetlights glimmering overhead, breath conjuring clouds in the chilly air, I spring after the guy lugging a strung-up stack of newspapers into the hotel, wondering if my scrawny arms could lift the day’s news. It’s quarter to six in the morning, heading to the gym.

Most sensible people take radical steps to muscle up before unpacking their skin-showing summer clothes. I’m a procrastinator. I’d waited all summer — come to think of it, I’d waited years. Though I still thought of myself as a fit person, really that was me two children ago.

So when a friend suggested I join her at boot camp, I fired off a vaguely inquisitive e-mail to Nisa Counter. Her Web site photos bring to mind the Patagonia catalogue, all outdoorsy and relaxed. Her Miss Fit’s boot camp is based at the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven. Within minutes, she was on the phone (did I really type my phone number in that e-mail?) saying I was in (tomorrow? are you sure?), starting on the second day of a month-long fitness program which meets weekdays at 6 a.m. It was a fitful sleep that night.

One by one about 20 women arrived — a high school girl, women with kids in high school, twenty and thirtysomethings comparing notes on boyfriends. They’d all been measured — chest, arms, waist, hips, thighs and calves — the morning before. Nisa promised she’d bring the tape measure again the next day for me. (Was that really necessary?)

Jennie Slossberg

Nisa handed me a form to sign and I handed her a check (fortunately I already was a member of the gym, which at this point is charging boot campers the same rates as any gym visitor). Weeks later I would find that form crumpled in my backpack and notice that it suggested we circle those things we could commit to which might enhance the boot camp benefits: no sugar, no alcohol, no dairy, no white flour, no whining, that sort of thing. Had I read the form when I signed it, it might have seemed even more bizarre that as the group set off that first day for a workout at Owen Park, the talk was all about crçme brûlée.

The brûlée babes were regulars. They began lunging up the hill without instruction. I followed, a lamb to muscular slaughter, while they compared how the brûlée the night before compared to great desserts past. This was good; I hadn’t even considered giving up sugar or alcohol. The exercising didn’t yet seem too hard. We lunged up while Nisa, wearing platforms and a jacket on the sidelines, shouted instructions: take big steps, keep your knee from bending forward past your ankle, hands on your hips. Do it wrong and you get injured; Nisa likes her clean record on injuries.

Once at the top of the hill, we were to walk back down, backwards. This was weird. If you’re up in time to see the sunrise, you should look at it. Plus, sleep-deprived and aware of how goofy it looked to walk backwards against the sunrise, I kept having phantom sightings of people I knew at the hilltop. People that I knew would not be walking the streets of Vineyard Haven at 6 in the morning, but that, perhaps, is the psychological effect of being so far out of my zone of normal behavior. Meanwhile Nisa found a wagon, folded her tall, athletic frame into it, and got the brûlée babes to pull her up the hill; the “newbies” got a pass. Perhaps we should start with something lighter, say, newspaper bundles.

We concluded with about one minute of stretching (I’d missed the first-day talk explaining that stretching should be done on our own time). Nisa kept repeating “Epsom salt baths with really hot water” and I thought, smugly, What? After just that? That was rather fun.

Next day we met at the Inkwell, the beach sand damp and unforgiving for calves which maybe had been a little too smug the day before. Nisa asked for 100 of this and 100 of that, and then chatted away as we struggled with strange backward pushups on the wall (for those wobbly triceps) and stepping up and down on the wall (for those calves). Hadn’t we hit 100 yet? Wasn’t her surname Counter? Why wasn’t she counting? At least she’d forgotten the tape measure. It was a beautiful morning and I felt happy as I bunny-hopped (very goofy, but good for your abs) along the beach at sunrise.

I felt great, in fact, until about half an hour later. Then — and this is shameful, I know — I was relieved to find my seven-year-old too sick to go to school. I had to stay home (and not face the staircase up to my desk at work). I filled a steaming hot bath with Epsom salts while my under-the-weather daughter read me her favorite pony stories. We both felt better by midday.

It was day three when I arrived a few minutes after 6 a.m. Suddenly Nisa, who to now had been the most laid-back trainer, started to sound so . . . so boot camp-ish. So like another word starting with b. She pointed me, and a other latecomers, to the hotel staircase and ordered us up. And down. And. . .

Gym houses Boot Camp in bad weather. — Jennie Slossberg

The only good thing about this was that it seemed almost preferable to the rest of the hour, which was riding stationary bikes. If Nisa noticed I wasn’t adding much resistance to my bike when I was supposed to be, she did not say so. The chatter was amiable. Some talked, some listened, some put their iPod earphones in. By the end of the hour Nisa was laughing at her own attempt to be boot campishly tough.

On Friday, I came in for “muscle class” and chose weights exponentially lighter than a stack of strung-up newspapers. Three weeks yet to go.

Caribbean-born Nisa Counter taught her first fitness class at this very gym, when it was still the Tisbury Inn, at age 15. She’d been coming to classes with her mother for more than a year when one day the instructor did not show up and the hotel owner suggested young Nisa should take the class.

By the next year, Nisa had convinced the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School to begin offering home-study credits in place of gym classes; she got credit for teaching at the health club. Now she is the one who signs off for juniors and seniors enjoying that same program, who take her fitness classes in lieu of gym at school.

Ms. Counter began Miss Fit’s boot camp five years ago. Many women report that her boot camp transformed their life — their testaments are not just blurbs for the Web site; some have been coming for nearly all five years.

Ms. Counter never doubted that it would change her clients’ lives. She already had decades of personal training experience.

“There are only so many exercises for a bicep,” she smiles, drinking herbal tea at Mocha Mott’s where she hangs out with other boot campers after class. “But you can always change up the way you work the muscles. More repetitions, more weight, add an incline. I plan variations I specifically know will work, will change your bodies.”

Every person who has done Miss Fit’s has lost inches, she says proudly.

What has surprised her, she says, is how Miss Fit’s transformed her own life. “I never used to take clients before 9 a.m. because I am not a morning person,” she says. Yet every day now five alarm clocks in her bedroom go off in succession, and she has missed only one day of boot camp in five years.

“I have forged friendships with some women I would never have run into . . . from all walks of life,” she marvels. “People get connected here.”

In September, some of the Miss Fit’s chipped in for a $100 gift certificate for the 15th birthday of a young woman who comes to boot camp every day before school. Last month, many in the group celebrated the 50th birthday of another long-term boot camper, who first came with her daughters years ago.

Ms. Counter decided early on that she wanted to inspire her charges, not motivate them.

“To inspire is about longevity,” she said. “If you inspire people, they remember — the inspiration stays with them. Motivating is kind of obnoxious and it just sticks while they are there.

“So I try to inspire by the way I live my life in the healthiest way possible,” she said. “I can’t preach and not go out and live it. At times in my training life I was living off Red Bull, you know? That was brutal. Now it’s not about being size 0, it’s about living the longest, healthiest life.”

Her boot camp is about improving your body; “your mind is your own,” she says, in contrast to other life-coaching boot camps. She has designed her program specifically to avoid being intimidating. “So many people say, ‘I’ve got to get into shape before I do your boot camp.’ That’s ridiculous! I’ve had women who are 100 pounds overweight. People who have never worked out their whole life until their fifties. Girls 12 to 64 have done boot camp. I’ve had triathletes. Anyone can join, anyone can accomplish their goals,” she says.

She also continues her individual and group training, and teaches 11 to 15 classes a week at the Mansion House. “That’s why a lot of the time I don’t do the stuff with you guys at boot camp,” she winks.

This year, unusually, Ms. Counter is running boot camps throughout the winter on the Vineyard. She often runs a version of her boot camp in Vail, Colo., during the winter. The next session begins Jan. 7 on the Vineyard.

Week two and my aches subsided. I gradually got to know some lovely people. Each day, I’d drunk half a liter of water and worked out for an hour before the rest of the house woke up. For a working mother, it’s too rare to take time purely for yourself. Yet now, by breakfast, I’d been in the pool, power walked to Oak Bluffs or West Chop, lifted weights, lunged around Veterans Park or the Inkwell, or gone kayaking. I felt tighter, muscled up.

Nisa did eventually, after two weeks, take my measurements; six weeks after that I’d lost more than five inches here and there. I hadn’t given up flour or dairy or alcohol or sugar; I hadn’t bargained on anything but getting some exercise. But I had got more than I bargained for, in ways harder to measure. I swaggered down Main street in new jeans, ready to take on any news.


For details or to sign up, visit the Web site or call 508-696-5409.