Nisa’s girls

A dedicated tribe of fitness ‘queens.’

The group can be found at Owen Park in Vineyard Haven, Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, Menemsha Beach, or even out on kayaks. —Courtesy Nisa Counter

Nisa Counter lives a different life than most. She’s been a vegetarian since birth, a vegan before it was cool, and has never had a single drop of alcohol in her life. “We were, like, the freak kids,” Ms. Counter, 47, said, describing her family. “We were the only vegetarians on Martha’s Vineyard. I think people thought my mom was a child abuser.”

My, how times have changed.

Ms. Counter and her family are cutting-edge. She was born on St. Croix on the Virgin Islands, and moved to Martha’s Vineyard when she was 3 years old. Her parents raised her and her twin brothers vegetarian. No meat, no dairy, no alcohol — no problem.

“I was never even curious,” she said. “I would never eat an animal, and I don’t understand how anyone could.”

She’s outspoken and always has been, and she gets that from her parents. Her mother is one of the people who started the Montessori School on-Island. “I tell my girls all the time, ‘You have no idea; it’s a big deal that I can go out and eat a vegan meal at a restaurant,’” Ms. Counter said.

The “girls” she’s referring to are her tribe of fitness queens. In addition to being a meatless and dairyless dietary advocate, Ms. Counter is also a physical trainer and a fitness guru. Every morning from 6 to 7 o’clock, Monday through Friday, she and a group of about 10 to 15 women are outside working out.

“My boot camps are just rockstar,” she said. “It’s a noncompetitive hour. No gossip, no drama, no nonsense. It’s a safe place for all women, of all sizes. From girls who have 100 pounds to lose to girls who are training for a triathlon. And for me, it’s one of the most beautiful hours of the day. By far.”

NisaFit boot camps are four-week-long programs that run from April through November every year. The season brings in a mix of returners and newcomers with a goal to better themselves, and Ms. Counter meets them every step of the way.

“Nisa and I went to high school together,” dedicated trainee Tiffany Belain said. “She’s literally been my trainer since we were teenagers.”

Ms. Counter found her calling at a young age. She started teaching fitness classes at the old Mansion House when she was 15 years old.

Workouts overlooking Vineyard Haven harbor. —Courtesy Nisa Counter

“I had an amazing mentor that really saw something in me that I might not have seen in myself,” she said of Catherine Ashmun, a personal trainer and health club manager at the Tisbury Inn before it became the Mansion House. “She’s the one who threw me in front of the group and said, ‘The teacher is not here. You’re teaching.’”

Health and wellness became her life’s work, and Ms. Counter has dedicated the past 32 years to building a brand and bettering lives. She spent the early part of her career chasing down certifications: PADI, CPR, AFAA personal training and aerobics, and Reebok Step. She also took kinesiology and anatomy courses at the University of Miami. But the technicality of classes and certifications aren’t as important to her anymore.

“The best way to learn is through experience,” she said. “Reading a book is not the same as spending time with a client.”


Nisa says the quickest changes for a body are diet first, then changing up your workout every day. —Courtesy Nisa Counter

NisaFit boot camps were officially established seven years ago when she parted ways with Mansion House. It’s a group experience, but she caters to the individual. When a new participant signs up for a four-week session, the first thing Ms. Counter does is take a health profile, where she looks at body measurements, injuries, limitations, and capabilities.

“I keep track of it all in my head,” she said. “Sometimes I write it down, but mostly it’s in my head. I have that kind of a brain.”

No two classes are the same, and these early mornings are spent at varying locations all over the Island. Here, they run with weights on the fishing pier in Oak Bluffs. —Courtesy Nisa Counter

Safety is of first and foremost concern; next is reaching goals. “Let’s say, we do one really heavy lower-body workout day,” Ms. Counter said. “The next day, we’re going to do something totally different. Ideally, you need to come all five days, otherwise your body is missing something.”

But exercise is just one piece of it. According to Ms. Counter, there’s no amount of training that can counter a poor diet. That’s why she offers food plans and dietary advice. She calls it her “vegan mafia,” and is always looking for more recruits.

Another piece of the program is variety. “I know that the quickest changes for a body are diet first, and then changing up your workout every day,” she said. That’s why no two classes are the same, and these early mornings are spent at varying locations all over the Island. The group can be found at Owen Park in Vineyard Haven, Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, Menemsha Beach, or even out on kayaks.

Nisa’s group often remain friends. —Courtesy Nisa Counter

After boot camp, Ms. Counter spends the rest of the day bopping around from personal client to personal client. She’s had her fair share of celebrity and red-carpet trainees, but would never drop a name. “I’m protective of my girls,” she said.

Six o’clock in the morning isn’t the most widely desired time of day. In fact, if it wasn’t for early flights, I would have no idea what it looks like. But when Nisa invited me to drop in on one of her classes, I set my fears aside, and my alarm for 5:30 am.

Nisa says her workouts are “no gossip, no drama, no nonsense.” —Courtesy Nisa Counter

It was a humid, misty, Monday morning at Owen Park in Vineyard Haven. The girls arrived at 6 am sharp and made their way toward Nisa’s unmissable black Jeep Wrangler stamped with the boot camp logo — an abstract drawing of Nisa’s face created two by artists in St. Croix. Nisa’s husband, Ben Ramsey, who’s also a personal trainer, helps with the workouts every morning.

She had the group start with warmups on the hill, after first checking in with everyone to make sure there were no new injuries. Jog to the top of the hill, walk back. High kicks to the top of the hill, walk backwards back. Lunges to the top of the hill, jog back.

Beach road pushups. —Courtesy Nisa Counter

The group moved at their own pace, but stayed together, conversing about their lives after not seeing each other all weekend. It was part of their routine. A group fitness family.

Nisa had the group jogging in the sand, doing sprints on the dock, and ab workouts on mats overlooking Vineyard Haven Harbor. What struck me most was how quickly the hour went by, how nice everyone was, and the fact that my body felt good moving around this early. I see why these women do it every day.

Nisa Counter is a force. She’s a giver. Who wouldn’t want to be one of her girls?


For more information on classes and pricing, visit Ms. Counter also offers training for men.