The True Body Workout
By Sydney Lovelace | Photography by Dawn Chapman Whitty
As a lifelong waterman and avid surfer, when I heard about an ER doctor in Panama City Beach, Florida, who designed a groundbreaking, research-backed, water-based training program—not to mention that he collaborated and shared his research with Laird Hamilton, former pro volleyball player Gabby Reece, and XPT’s Brian Mackenzie, and has worked with many Hall of Fame surfers and countless rock stars—it immediately inspired me to jump out of my beach chair and get to work.
The night before my first session of what I learned is called VitalityPro, I got a text message from the famous Dr. Frank Merritt himself. “You are officially invited to join us in the morning for one of our two-hour water sessions, so no food after dinner, and only water and coffee before the 9:00 a.m. session.”
I was caught off guard by the idea of working out on an empty stomach. I’m the guy who likes to eat a sandwich on the way to the gym. (I must admit that the next morning I cheated and had a hard-boiled egg with my coffee. Since I weigh 230 pounds, a hard-boiled egg doesn’t go far for me, but mentally I felt like I needed it as a reserve because I’d never worked out hungry in my life.)
The next morning, at a resort swimming pool on sparkling Panama City Beach, I met the articulate and charismatic Dr. Merritt; his lovely wife, Regina, who is a physical therapist; and his head trainer, Brandon Rager, a gentle, chiseled rock of a man who is also a former NCAA linebacker and NFL player for the Baltimore Ravens. Joining us for the training session on this exciting morning was a mix of individuals of all ages and fitness levels—everything from a couple of corporate CEO types to a waitress and a high school wrestler. Some of the participants were strong swimmers, but surprisingly about half were not. For the next two hours, we did a circuit of activities on deck and underwater that as a former collegiate swimmer at Florida State University and all-around waterman I had never attempted nor contemplated.
Before we get to the session and my personal results, let me try to explain the lightning in a bottle that is Dr. Frank Merritt. Imagine Dr. Oz meets Tarzan meets Andy Griffith. This surfer, doctor, and son of an Alabama preacher man has smarts, energy, faith, and passion at levels which I have rarely seen. He quickly reminded me of enigmatic visionaries like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos—inventors who had taken a look at the way things have always been and dared to ask, “Why? Isn’t there a much better way?” As the session progressed, it became obvious to me that I was in the presence of a guy who is about to shake things up in the world of health and fitness. His tactics will not only optimize the performance of college teams, but also enhance the quality of life for average individuals, middle-agers, senior citizens, and, perhaps best of all, those with life-challenging ailments.
As we all sat in a circle to do stretches and basic breathing exercises, Dr. Merritt spoke about the three biggest functions that determine our longevity: pulmonary function, mobility, and cognitive function. These make us question if we feel that life is worth living. Anybody who has parents or grandparents who are in their late seventies or beyond knows exactly what I’m talking about. As Dr. Merritt explained, there is a big difference between chronological age and vitality age. Vitality age is determined by testing each of the following: cardiovascular age, pulmonary age, mobility age, body composition age, and muscle fitness age. Combine all of those scores to calculate your “overall vitality age.” Once this is done, the VitalityPro team designs a tailored program to help you improve in your weakest areas. Dr. Merritt went on to explain that when we’re young, we take all of these for granted. By the time we’re middle-aged, we start to worry about such things as being healthy and strong enough for sex; in later years, we worry that we might catch the flu, which can lead to pneumonia and death, or that we might lose our balance, fall, and break a hip, thereby losing our independence. At this point, he had everyone’s undivided attention. Suddenly we were unified in a desire not to allow those three factors to interfere with our future life plans.
I participated in two different sessions a few days apart: one was conducted in the swimming pool; the other was on land. In both the land and the water sessions, we spent the first fifteen or so minutes stretching not the typical large muscle groups, but all the muscles and tendons that are attached to the all-important lungs (many of which I never even realized were critical to breathing). With all of these crucial tendons and tiny muscles that make up the connective tissue around our lungs, helping pull air in and push it out, it’s crazy to realize how little we work them! Just like our larger muscle groups, they too can weaken and atrophy when not used. They are so critical to our vitality—and mortality. That’s why Dr. Merritt likes to call these workshops Pul-Sessions. Suddenly, the lightbulb turned on; my biceps and triceps that I’ve worked on since I was nine years old may help fill out my T-shirt nicely, but they will not do a thing for my longevity or vitality.
In both the gym and the poolside sessions, Dr. Merritt breaks things down into a set of stations, each of which also incorporates a specific breath-control goal that is paired perfectly with the physical activity. Stations include weight lifting (both above and under the water), balloon blowing, walking or running with weights above and below the water’s surface, balancing, and a combination of cognitive and balancing exercises. The latter is a brilliant method to train your all-important brain while also training your other muscles. For the first time in my life, I’m finally doing a total-body workout! It made so much sense! My favorite station was the one where we stood on the bottom of the pool in ten feet of water (and later in the Gulf of Mexico), holding dumbbells in our hands, pushing off the bottom, thrusting our bodies to the surface for a breath, and finishing with an effortless descent back to the starting position.
One of the stations that I thought would be the easiest was, in fact, my toughest: the infamous ice bath. Yep, a bathtub of ice and water. As a weekend warrior, I’m constantly icing knees and shoulders. I learned long ago about the healing that can occur when you don’t spare the ice, so I thought I was all set. When it was time for me to jump in, though, I made it to my belly button before every molecule in my body went on autopilot, immediately vetoed this idea, and worked together in the blink of an eye to thrust me straight out of that tub. It took three attempts before I could override my natural instincts and slide up to my shoulders in the ice. We only had to stay in for one minute, but while we were in the ice we had to play cognitive games with our partner in the next tub. Brilliant idea! Mentally, it was a big challenge even to speak, much less to try to answer a simple question. This was done to make sure we were not getting hypothermic.
The next station was a tricky balancing motor-sensory exercise. As Dr. Merritt pointed out, the body and mind are geared to notice and recognize change. For example, if someone held a hand on your shoulder for a long time, after a while you would not even notice it, but as soon as it was removed, your mind would draw your attention to that change. I think the ice was a way of stimulating every cell in our bodies, and letting us know that a big change was on the way. I must say, after initially hating the ice, when the entire session was over I slipped back into the tub for some extra shots of exhilaration.
An important disclaimer that Dr. Merritt is quick to articulate is that in his sessions (he sometimes hesitates to call them “workouts” so as to not scare off those who feel they are out of shape) he may not be able to cure you of your Parkinson’s, your MS, or your cancer—but he can help you maximize your mobility and improve your pulmonary and cognitive functions to enable you to be the highest-functioning Parkinson’s or MS patient ever. This is why he challenges you to push yourself, to face your fears, and to blow those boundaries and any other limiting mind-sets out the window.
What Dr. Merritt has designed and, more importantly, what his program has proved through medical science and lab analysis, is that VitalityPro has unlocked doors that can dramatically change how you perform in all areas of your life. The sessions work on your body, mind, and coordination, and the efficiency and the speed at which you can recover and be ready for your next peak-performance burst (very important for pro athletes). When Dr. Merritt says peak recovery time, he’s not talking about days, hours, or even minutes; he’s counting seconds. His program trains your body to master speedy recovery times so you can quickly get your oxygenation levels up, your heart rate down, your muscles ready to fire, and—arguably the most crucial result—your mind functioning at the highest level possible. Dr. Merritt’s research has even determined exactly how many reps and sets are the most beneficial for athletes and nonathletes alike.
So, after the two-hour session, how did I feel? I went back to where I was staying to nap before embarking on the drive to Tallahassee for the weekend. In general, I love thirty- to sixty-minute naps each day, whether I work out or not; so when I failed to sleep a single wink, I was truly baffled. I rarely partake in two-hour workouts of any kind these days, except surfing, so after the session, I should have been wiped out.
On the contrary, my mind was clear and sharp. Rather than grumpy with fatigue, I was full of energy, positive thoughts and ideas, and even bliss. The sequence of the activities, complemented by the breath work, must have released a mother lode of endorphins, dopamine, and more that lowered my blood pressure and gave me an awesome feeling of Zen. On my two-hour drive to Tallahassee, I never once thought about pulling over to rest or sleep. After arriving and having dinner with some friends, I thought for sure I would finally hit the wall and not even make it to ten o’clock, but I was pleasantly surprised. As midnight approached, I was still feeling clear-headed, calm, inspired, accomplished, and happy. What more can you ask for from any physical activity on the planet? What was even more surprising to me was that these great feelings stayed with me for days. Even weeks later, I can still tap into those feelings!
That’s when it hit me and I knew for sure that Dr. Merritt and his programs have the potential to change how the world approaches health care, performance, vitality, and longevity. For those who are fortunate enough to experience this program, it’s going to be a huge game changer. I predict that in the coming years Panama City Beach will have people traveling to its sunny shores from all over the world just to participate in his workshops—and undoubtedly after their first experience, they will look forward to returning for years to come.
Frank Merritt, MD, founder of VitalityPro, graduated magna cum laude from Harding University, did post-grad research at Pepperdine University, and received his medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Currently, he is an emergency room physician and the former medical director for Bay Medical Center in Panama City, Florida. He has been a doctor for NASCAR, the Association of Surfing Professionals (now World Surf League), and the WWE. Learn more at www.VitalityPro.org.