fbpx vie magazine subscribe button


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.

Underwater exercise with weights fitness healthy lifestyle VitalityPro
As a surfer and a doctor, Merritt focuses his program heavily on water as an ideal environment for pushing fitness to the limit—with an emphasis on safety and achieving goals of overall health and vitality rather than just building muscle.

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.

Man in an ice bath to prevent injury focus determination healthy living VitalityPro
Though grueling, an ice bath can help prevent injury and soreness from microtrauma—small tears in muscle and tissue that occur during rigorous activity.

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

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.

Read Responsibly

VIE Magazine - The Art & Design Issue November 2021
VIE Magazine January 2021 Special Commemorative Edition
VIE Magazine September 2020 Wanderlust Issue, Fancy Camps, The Idea Boutique
VIE Magazine August 2020 Art & Culture Issue, Nathan Alan Yoakum Art
VIE Magazine - Architecture & Design Issue - July 2020
VIE Magazine - Decor and Home Issue - June 2020
VIE Magazine May 2020 Entertainment Issue, Leslie Odom Jr
VIE Magazine - April 2020 Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine March 2020 The Fashion Edit, VONDOM, Alys Beach Fl, Digital Graffiti, Tres Chic, isidro dunbar Modern Interiors, Digital Graffiti Festival
VIE Magazine February 2020 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Travel Issue - January 2020 - Tanzania Safari Cover
VIE Magazine - Women's Issue - December 2019 - Tina Brown Cover
VIE NOV19 Goodness Issue
VIE Magazine, September 2019 Art & Culture Issue, Paul Hanninen
VIE Magazine - August 2019 - The Architecture and Design Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2019 - The Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - June 2019 - Fashion Edit
VIE Magazine - May 2019 - Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine - April 2019 - The Health & Wellness Issue
VIE Magazine - Special Entertainment Edition - March 2019
VIE Magazine February 2019 Luxury Homes & Technology Issue with Robbie Antonio of Revolution Precrafted
VIE Magazine - January 2019 - Southern Sophisticate Issue Cover
VIE Magazine - Special Anniversary Travel Edition - December 2018
VIE Magazine - The Goodness Issue - November 2018
VIE Magazine - The Art & Culture Issue - October 2018
VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail