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Photography by David Benthal

Struggling through the loss of a close friend, Randy Nieves decided to don a gi eight years ago for the first time since his childhood karate classes. 

“The spiral led me back to martial arts, looking for a kickboxing academy,” Nieves, 34, of Aquebogue, said. “I ended up joining a place where they had jiujitsu. I hopped in there. I got choked out in about 10 seconds.” 

Ten seconds later, he signed up. 

Not long after her 21st birthday, Kristen Falek entered what she described as a “party girl phase.” Along the way, she decided to take up jiujitsu for self defense. She learned much more than how to protect herself while strolling through late night bar scenes. 

“Being able to accept the fact that I am worth defending completely changed the way I thought about myself,” Falek, now 28, of Aquebogue, said. “From a woman’s perspective, you’re so focused on how your body looks and what people think about you and trying to make yourself small so you’re acceptable to other people, but training changed how I allow people to treat me.” 

In addition to the physical and mental health benefits martial arts provides, Nieves and Falek found friendships through fitness, as well as each other. The two have sparred countless times, and four years ago, they started dating. In 2020, they decided to start training students of their own and opened their North Fork Jiu Jitsu academy in Cutchogue. 

The power couple is among the many fitness fanatics of the North Fork offering much more than a workout at your average gym, or your Zoom or Peloton sessions at home. These exercise experts not only lead people through unique fitness regimens, bolstering their physical and emotional well-being, they help foster a sense of community among those under their guidance. 

Cardio, core and coordination 

At North Fork Jiu Jitsu, routine rolling, or sparring, on the mat is sure to burn calories and leave partners spent. 

“It’s like a nonstop crashing wave that you just learn to breathe through,” Falek said of each round. “And with that being said, your cardio gets increased, your overall proprioception gets increased, your core stability gets increased because you have to stay engaged for the whole thing. So it’s like a full body workout without having to sit inside the gym and stare at yourself in the mirror.” 

Various Pilates classes are another great way to slim down and tone up. At The Giving Room in Southold, Stacy Krumenacker teaches barre Pilates, which combines mat Pilates with exercises performed at a ballet barre for balance. 

“We can get our arms and our abs on the mat, not as easy to get legs in Pilates,” Krumenacker said. “So when we get to the barre, it’s a lot of leg work. We get to do hamstrings, glutes especially and there’s the added bonus of ankle mobility and calf strength.” 

In Riverhead, Jeannie Brady recently opened her new Empower Pilates & Personal Training studio, moving the equipment and classes that she had offered at American Muscle Studios for the past four years. Among her new regimens are Pilates reformer classes, during which each student uses a machine boasting springs and ropes that helps them isolate a target area where they want to feel the burn. 

“If you were lying on your back on a mat and lifting and lowering your legs to work your abs, many people will feel that in their back, many people will feel that in their hip flexors,” Brady explained. “But when we do that same movement on the machine — and your feet are in the straps — the weight of your legs is being supported by the straps and you’re able to learn how to feel your abs.”

Perhaps the furthest option from a traditional gym setting for North Forkers is the pool at the Suffolk County Community College Eastern Campus Health Club. There, Susan MacDonald teaches water aerobics to a group upwards of 30 strong, primarily consisting of seniors and individuals recovering from injuries.

“Exercising in the water, you don’t have all the stress,” MacDonald said “It’s easy for people to be flexible and not hurt themselves. We have a lot of people with hip replacements and knee replacements and they can exercise because the water keeps them buoyant.”

For parents looking for alternative exercises for their children, lifelong fencing competitor and coach Jennifer Murray teaches 7- to 14-year-olds the practice through her East End Fencing Academy program. While the activity may look like fun and games from a distance, she knows otherwise.

“You’re doing nothing but moving in fencing,” Murray said. “In fact, a lot of people don’t realize just how quickly they perspire and get out of breath with fencing … it’s definitely a cardio sport.

“Fencing is a martial art, it’s a skill that you could develop over a lifetime and never really master,” she continued. “It requires balance, agility, coordination, quick reflexes and the ability to think quickly on your feet. It’s considered a physical chess game because you’re strategizing as you’re moving.”

Confidence and camaraderie

Many people seeking new workout routines expect nothing more than the physical benefits exercise reaps. Such was the case for William Nolan when he signed up for training at North Fork Jiu Jitsu.

“I joined to lose weight; I stayed for the community,” he said, minutes after receiving applause from his peers for earning his first stripe on his white belt during a Monday evening session. “This is like community on steroids.”

For many fitness instructors and students, the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced how important their workout circle was to their everyday life. When the lockdown began, Paula DiDonato, who owns and teaches yoga and meditation at The Giving Room, turned to Zoom instruction. More importantly, she inundated inboxes with daily emails regarding yoga, the pandemic, news of larger the community and eventually, information regarding nature walks she hosted.

“We were able to keep a lot of the community together in that way,” DiDonato said. “The whole notion of community for some, is just as important as the yoga classes.

“It’s been a lifeline for a lot of people, including me,” she continued. “That was two years that were super challenging, and to have that dialogue with the community all the time and to feel like there still was a sense of wellness and well-being … that’s very uplifting for Murray turned to the great outdoors during the pandemic to keep her East End Fencing Academy classes going. She saw several fresh faces become friends during this time, which she attributes to the limited in-person extracurricular options afforded to kids under COVID-19 restrictions.

“It is definitely a social environment,” she said. “The kids become friends within the classes and it extends to outside the class.”

In fact, the sport of fencing essentially requires socialization if the children who practice wish to improve.

“With fencing, you want to fence other people because the greater the variety of opponents you have, the more skill sets you develop,” Murray said. “Say siblings are just fencing each other at home, after a while it gets stale because they know exactly what their sibling is going to do, they can predict it.

“There’s continual improvement every single time students are in a class,” she added of seeing boosts to her students’ confidence. “That’s really what makes it a fun sport.”

For other alternative exercise community leaders, fostering a welcoming environment in each class turns newcomers into regulars.

“It’s a very supportive community,” Brady said of her Pilates tribe. “If someone is brand new, the other people in the class will welcome them and comment on them at the end of the class like ‘I can’t believe that was your first class, you were so great.’ ” 

“You realize how challenging it is, and it’s so rewarding with your consistency,” she added of the exercise’s mental health benefits. “I think psychologically you realize ‘wow, I am capable, I’m growing, I’m getting stronger, I’m more confident.’ ”

“There’s definitely a social element to it,” MacDonald said of her water aerobics class. “People look forward to coming back because they start to get to know each other. We meet twice a week and everybody tends to show up.”


While any exercise offers people the chance to better themselves, some fitness figures on the North Fork rally their community to better the lives of others.

If “The Giving Room” sounds like an odd name for a fitness studio and juice bar, that’s because DiDonato opened it with another vision in mind. Since 2010, her center has galvanized people to support local charities. Over the years, she spearheaded food drives for Maureen’s Haven for the Homeless, a local art auction to support The Retreat, which provides safety and support for victims of domestic violence, and a diaper drive for the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation.

“We now have thousands of clients that either come to the juice bar or Pilates or yoga classes,” DiDonato said. “When there’s a need in the community, we become a conduit to connect our community to whatever the need is, and they donate.

Paula DiDonato owns The Giving Room in Southold | Photography by Nicholas Grasso

“We’ve given tens of thousands of dollars to local charities over the last 10 years,” she continued. “It’s been pretty amazing to see how our clients really show up and want to help.”

Last November, Nieves, Falek and a half-dozen North Fork Jiu Jitsu students headed to the Tap Cancer Out tournament at the St. John’s Prep Wellness Center in Danvers, Mass. They were among many academies across the nation that raised funds and competed in the nonprofit’s tournament to support cancer-fighting organizations.

“As a team we raise some money, we go up there, we compete,” Nieves said. “We raised just about $2,800. There’s so many teams doing it, it really shows how big an effect a small community can make.”