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Kenneth Cooper, MD, MPH: Man on a Mission

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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