Published in the Shelter Island Reporter on Feb. 4, 2016
I’ve seen many a health club, but never one that rivals Project FIT.
In a world where fitness is found in eucalyptus-scented warehouses with rows of heart-monitoring, cadence-counting electronic devices and throbbing music you feel in your chest, FIT stands apart. Like all things Island, we do gym a little differently here.
Sure, other fitness centers have interactive stationary bikes equipped with features that reproduce the visual and physical conditions you would encounter if you decided to ride a stage of the Tour de France. But they don’t have the inspiring view from the window by the ellipticals at FIT after 11 a.m. weekdays after Labor Day. That’s when recess takes place; a fascinating hour of Shelter Island’s schoolchildren playing ball, speed-walking around the track and hanging like orangutans from the playground equipment.
San Francisco’s highly-rated CrossFit gym has a shirts-on policy for men and women to keep dripping sweat under control and to ensure theirs is not a place where, says the founder, “a few super-jacked people can show off their six-packs.” Here at FIT no dress code is enforced, with many members preferring long sleeved shirts with cuffs and pants that require ironing. Six-packs are for afterwards.
At fitness centers off-Island, cranked-to-max headphones blare Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. At FIT on a late December morning, a regular slowly pedaled her stationary bicycle wearing an elaborately stitched Christmas sweater, immersed in a hardback book.
At fancy health clubs in New York and L.A., celebrity stalking is a sport for some and a hazard for the famous. Here at Project FIT, even Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty can be seen exercising in khakis and a driving cap, without interference from the paparazzi.
There are no on-site aerobics or Zumba classes at FIT, and given my history with drop-in group classes, that suits me just fine. I single-handedly injured an entire aerobics class in 1980 when the instructor asked each of us to take turns leading the group in a move. As Donna Summer belted out “Hot Stuff,” I executed a lunge that hyperextended my knee, and the knees of my classmates as they unwisely followed.
A few Saturdays ago at FIT, two kids in their 20s who seemed to know each other from high school reconnected over by the treadmills.
“I’m here visiting my folks for the holidays.”
“Didn’t see you last night, I must have left before you got there.”
“Where are you living?”
“Brooklyn, how about you?”
“Brooklyn, Nice! I’m in Queens, Astoria.”
Meanwhile, on a stationary bike, a self-styled “Codger” revealed the secret exercise motivation coming through his earbuds. “I listen to Donald Trump stump speeches, which activates my muscles and blood in ways no exercise could,” he said. “If Trump stays the course I may be able to fulfill my dream of competing in Senior Mixed Martial Arts.”
Health clubs are a big and profitable business in most places. Project FIT is not big and by intention, just breaks even. It was the invention of Lila Piccozzi and Maura Regan, seniors in the Shelter Island High School Class of 1998, who wanted to leave the fitness facilities at the school in better shape than they found them. The two of them brought the community together around their idea, raised the bar to include a fitness room, tennis courts and ball field improvements, and gathered over $250,000 to make it happen.
Ten years later, someone realized that Project FIT, although operated by the Town, had been constructed without a building permit and opened without a certificate of occupancy. I have to admire a gym that so closely recreates the experience of hanging out in a friend’s garage that it can operate for years without anyone asking if the paperwork is in order. I wouldn’t think of asking if the Health Department inspected the premises before eating dinner at a neighbor’s house. Would you?
There are 34,000 health clubs in the U.S. and 54 million Americans are members. But 437 people — an increase of almost 30 percent in 2015 — belong to the most remarkable little fitness center of all, Shelter Island’s own Project FIT.
From the beginning, Project FIT has been equal parts socializing and exercising. Wondering how the girls basketball team did in their Friday night game? Find out at Project FIT on Saturday morning. Curious about how the Bucks offense will fare against the North Fork Ospreys in a summertime Friday-night Hamptons League face-off? Hear the scouting reports from the (large!) guys when they do their weight training before the game.
FIT aides Katherine Doroski, Janine Mahoney and Katherine Brewer, and Director Garth Griffin know that sometimes the socializing can get pretty intense, “Some stay for fifteen minutes after closing time talking,” said Griffin, “I have to shoo them out.”