Kenneth Cooper, MD, MPH: Man on a Mission

Sep 01, 2007

Icons & Innovators

Nearly 40 years ago Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH, decided that fitness should be recognized as a key to health, longevity and disease prevention. He made his point, and his message matters more today then ever.

When Dr. Ken Cooper talks, you'd better listen. Closely. Because he will rattle off statistics on health, fitness and disease prevention so quickly it will make your head spin, or at least make you want to go out for a run to get all the exercise benefits you can.

The man known as "the father of aerobics" is just as determined to change the world now, at the age of 76, as he was in 1968, when he published the bestseller Aerobics and started a fitness revolution.

"In 1968, they said the streets would be full of dead joggers if people followed my recommendations," he recalls. "By 1984, more than 30 million people were jogging regularly. Critics were worried that it would increase heart problems. Instead, heart disease went down more than 40%, and two-thirds of that could be attributed to the lifestyle changes of the Baby Boomers. Between 1970 and 1990, life expectancy went up from age 70 to 76 as deaths from heart disease went down."

But that optimistic tide took a turn for the worse, Cooper notes."The problem is that the Boomer generation didn't keep it up and didn't pass it on to their kids. Now the United States ranks 24th in longevity, which is expected to drop back down to age 72 by 2050. We're spending way too much of our health service dollars on desperate measures, often prolonging death, not life, a miserable few days."

That's a situation Cooper is determined to turn around. Nominated twice for surgeon general, and currently one of the physicians responsible for the health of President George W. Bush, Cooper explored federal channels for children's wellness programs but determined that progress was more likely at the state level. So he developed a bill for mandatory physical education and assessment in grades K-12, the first program of its kind in Texas. Cooper worked with the Texas House and Senate, the bill passed with modifications, and it will take effect this fall.

"My goal is to make the program so impressive that other states follow," he says. He plans to track the association between fitness and scholastic achievement, and is raising millions of dollars to fund the research.

It's just one of many current projects for the unstoppable Cooper, who is also founder, chairman and chief executive officer of the world-famous Cooper Aerobics Center. Today the 30-acre Dallas complex and new expansion in McKinney, Texas, has more than 700 employees and a long waiting list for patients. Groundbreaking research conducted by the Cooper Institute includes the landmark 8-year study of more than 13,000 patients, which showed that sedentary individuals are four times as likely to die from cardiovascular disease as those who exercise moderately. The Cooper database, the largest in the world based on treadmill stress testing as a measure of fitness, is now following almost 100,000 patients. A second clinic is being built, which will include a breast cancer research center. Another innovative wellness project under construction is Cooper Life—a residential complex that offers fitness center memberships for the entire family, a personal trainer and a dietitian assigned to the home, comprehensive clinic exams, boutique medical care and all the amenities of a luxury resort.

Cooper advises fitness professionals to emphasize permanent lifestyle change and a thorough four-step process of evaluation, education, implementation and follow-up. He is an advocate of realistic goals, noting that most people will not get back to their high-school weight, for example.

Of course, Cooper himself is still at his high-school weight and is maintaining his characteristic marathon work pace, although an injury slowed his jogging schedule a bit 2 years ago. He has a weekly syndicated radio program and lectures extensively all over the world. The author of 18 books, he is currently working on a new one with his son, Tyler Cooper, MD, MPH.

"In medical school, I was going the traditional route, which was generally that the profit was in disease, not health," Cooper recalls. That changed when he experienced the benefits of healthy living for himself. At the age of 29, working with astronauts as an Air Force physician, Cooper found himself inactive and overweight. So he took up marathon running, a passion he would continue for over 40 years. "It made such a dramatic difference in my life. I realized that fitness was an important field of medicine that was being sadly ignored, so I changed career direction completely."

He managed to see that the world changed directions along with him, and today, four decades later, no one is working harder to make sure that the health benefits of fitness are never ignored again.

Mary Monroe is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

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