Kevin Johnson has been active his whole life and began distance running at 4, so he was not expecting to have a heart attack at 51.
The certified public accountant ended up having heart bypass surgery and lost at least 50 pounds of muscle while staying at the Mayo Clinic. Later he had to get a heart transplant, and the athletic man said he found himself “very, very skinny.”
While he underwent cardiac rehabilitation at the hospital, Johnson still was weak and had trouble doing simple things like stepping into his truck, and he could not do two of his favorite activities: running and hiking.
But Johnson bounced back and regained his strength through a strength-regeneration system developed by VitalityHealth, which has two centers in Scottsdale – 3300 N. 75th St. and 10165 N. 92nd St. – and another in Sun Lakes.
Now he frequently hikes, walks and bicycles.
“I feel like I am as strong and capable as I was before my heart attack,” he said. “Doctors are very impressed that I’m as active as I am. Eight months later I can do twice as much weight lifting. I feel like I have put on quite a bit of good muscle.”
Johnson’s improvement is one of many success stories for patients who exercise at VitalityHealth’s three locations, said Matt Essex, founder and president of VitalityHealth.
The clinic’s medical wellness system helps people like Johnson who have sarcopenia, which Essex said is “a degradation or decline of muscle mass that leads to significant decreases in strength and function.”
Sarcopenia is the primary cause of muscle wasting, strength losses and falls among aging people, he said.
Ryan Booher is Essex’s business partner and vice-president for the Scottsdale locations of VitalityHealth.
People on average lose about 30 percent of their muscle power between the ages of 50 and 70, according to the AARP.
“I will categorically tell you, you have to protect your muscles and preserve your muscle mass and strength,” Essex said. “If you neglect that, you’re really putting yourself at risk for pretty much everything you don’t want: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis.
“The way you treat sarcopenia is exactly the same as you treat osteoporosis. We have many patients in their 90s. You’d be amazed how much better they get. Some people will tell us, ‘I feel stronger now than I did in my 40s.’”
Some patients have said they could start playing tennis again or taking long walks because of their exercises at VitalityHealth, he added.
Essex said when he was earning his bachelor’s degree in exercise science and nutrition at Arizona State University, he helped researchers looking into sarcopenia in the mid-1990s.
“The idea of doing muscle training or strengthening exercises with older adults was relatively new then,” he said. “It was very, very compelling. When I first started, I couldn’t believe what we were asking these older people to do.”
People with an average age of 78 and some in their mid-90s, many of whom used walkers, did strength-training two to three times a week through the ASU studies.
Doing “pretty simple protocol,” they became “remarkably stronger and healthier across the board,” Essex said.
“It’s almost miraculous,” he said. “I was just stunned with the changes, seeing people go from wheelchairs to walking again.”
Essex was involved in about 20 to 30 studies focused on strength training and aging, tracking sarcopenia. He later earned his master’s degree in exercise and wellness from ASU and served as a research director while in graduate school.
Essex took what he learned at ASU and started VitalityHealth in 2007, first in Scottsdale, and opened the Sun Lakes one in 2015. He and silent partners have similar companies under different brand names in Houston.
“My family is a long line of entrepreneurs,” Essex said. “I got the entrepreneur bug.”
Patients get an advanced diagnostic when they come to VitalityHealth to evaluate their body mechanics and find out what is keeping them from “training muscles in a safe manner,” he said. Once the evaluation is done and a plan is developed for them, patients go through sarcotherapy, a therapeutic treatment, under the guidance of a licensed physical therapist.
Most of the physical therapists that help these patients are doctorate level, Essex said. The patients do a variety of things to help stimulate the “muscle fibers in a very specific manner to get them to regrow and regenerate.”
“We’ll work on balance and stability and flexibility,” Essex said.
Generally the patients use computerized strength equipment to target the major muscle groups: legs, arms, chest, back and core muscles.
Patients in the sarcotherapy typically come to the center to exercise two to three times a week, for 30 minutes to an hour each time, Essex said.
Clients who are strong enough can do the sarco-regen treatments in small-group sessions, usually in about 30 minutes per visit, he said.
“Ideally by then we’ve removed the restrictors that would prevent them from engaging in activity,” Essex said. “They have less pain. We’ve dealt with the injuries. Their body’s hopefully in a more healthy state in a more efficient manner.”
Clients in the sarco-regen do squats or exercises using leg presses, seated chest presses, shoulder presses, stability exercises and other movements. An exercise physiologist or someone with a background in physiology or kinesiology leads the small groups.
“It’s really cool to see what happens,” Essex said. “Their friendships blossom. Aging can be tough. We like to be a beacon of hope in the community where they can come in and do something really constructive for their health but also build relationships with people that are like them.”
The Sun Lakes team took patients and members caroling in the community around Christmas and sometimes go on group hikes.
Clients are also taught about the importance of getting enough protein in their diets.
Johnson said he goes to VitalityHealth three times a week and works on strength-building machines.
“I feel like I’m my old self for sure,” he said. “They make you do things that you wouldn’t do normally. I think it would be very beneficial for anyone to do strength training. We also work on balance.”
Most of the patients at VitalityHealth are over 55 and many are over age 65, Essex said. The clinics accept Medicare for patients, and memberships are offered to those without health insurance for as low as $49 a month.