From the Corner Office – Dr. Kenneth Cooper

UPDATED: May 5, 2009
PUBLISHED: May 5, 2009

When Dr. Kenneth Cooper published his first book, Aerobics, in 1968, people could hardly pronounce it. Convincing those same people that this funny word was a critical component to their overall well-being has entailed a long, difficult journey. At the time, exercising for physical health was deemed absurd.

“When I was in medical school, we were taught that you shouldn’t exercise vigorously after 40 years of age [because] you’ll kill yourself,” Cooper says. “The crazy things that were common thinking back in the ’60s are exactly the opposite now.”

The medical community also has done a complete 180 in its view of concepts originally promoted by Cooper. His 12-minute mile aerobic capacity and treadmill stress tests are important parts of assessing a person’s total health, and good diet and exercise are considered the cornerstones for maintaining quality of life.

Cooper doesn’t just preach the benefits of exercise. In his youth, he discovered firsthand the pitfalls of focusing solely on academics. To stay awake for long hours of study during medical school, he ate. The bad habits followed him through his internship in Seattle, and, by the time he completed it, he had gained almost 40 pounds. He didn’t realize the severity of his condition until a day on water skis gave him a serious wake-up call.

“I was on the skis out there, and I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest,” he says. “I thought I was having a heart attack.”

He had suffered an alarming spike in his heart rate, and, at just 29, Cooper was told he was woefully out of shape. He changed his diet and exercise habits, lost all the weight he had gained within one year and ran his first marathon a year later. What he learned during that personal transition has fueled a lifetime of healthy habits, which have enabled him to keep the weight off for nearly five decades.

“We have proven it is cheaper and more effective to maintain good health than to regain it once it’s lost.”

Today, Cooper serves as chairman of nine health companies under the Cooper Aerobics umbrella, which includes The Cooper Institute, a nonprofit research and education center, 700 employees and revenue totaling $65 million.

The preventive medicine specialist and author of 19 books has long held that changing people’s lifestyles first requires evaluating them and identifying the problems. He has done the same with his business, evaluating the needs of patients and filling what was once a huge, gaping hole in modern medicine.

“We’ve proven that it is cheaper and more effective to maintain good health than to regain it once it’s lost.… If you provide a service that gives people the results they want, they will make it successful for you,” he says.

Cooper’s work in aerobics began while serving in the U.S. Air Force as f light surgeon and director of the Aerospace Medical Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas, where he helped create the conditioning and in-f light exercise programs for astronauts. After Aerobics was published, Cooper left the Air Force to continue doing research on exercise and preventive medicine.

Despite the book’s success, he left without financial stability. He had donated all the royalties from the book to the Air Force Aid Society. In 1970, he moved with his pregnant wife and 5-year-old daughter to Dallas with an idea to open a research facility/private practice—and little else.

“I wondered if I had made a mistake the fi rst few months after I left the Air Force because I came up here to Dallas, and I had no place to work, no place to live, no money and an irate medical society,” he says.

He borrowed $1.6 million to purchase 8.6 acres, convert an existing building into the Cooper Clinic and build the first Aerobics Activity Center, now called Cooper Fitness Center. However, a few months after he saw his fi rst patient in his tiny two-room office, he was called before the board of censors of the Dallas County Medical Society. His ideas for combining preventive, diagnostic and acute medicine were strange to them. The board argued that his maximal performance treadmill stress tests were bad for patients, but Cooper had done his homework and knew better.

“I just put the blinders on. I knew what I was doing was right,” he says. “My wife, she has been a fantastic support. We’ll be married 50 years this August. She said, ‘Forget about the critics.’ So we fought it.”

Cooper brought his research to the hearing to support his case. The board had a hard time arguing with all the hard data he had collected from his days developing conditioning programs for astronauts at NASA, and the hearing ended in Cooper’s favor.

Today, the idea that “prevention is better than cure” is spreading at an exponential rate as patients become more involved in their own health care. Cooper Aerobics’ health divisions— which range from corporate wellness and individual weight-loss programs to a comprehensive evaluation clinic and a guest lodge—encompass a 30-acre headquarters.

One of the most important studies to turn the tide in favor of preventive medicine was released by The Cooper Institute and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1989. It showed that individuals who went from sedentary to moderately fit lifestyles significantly reduced their risk of disease. Finally, Cooper had silenced the critics who had doubts about the benefits of exercise.

“To gain credibility, I had to have good scientific data to bridge the gap between faddism and scientific legitimacy,” Cooper says.

He is using the same principle 20 years later to lead the charge in making physical education an important part of curriculum in schools with the Our Kids’ Health initiative. To tackle the growing issue of child obesity, Cooper worked to get a Texas law passed requiring moderate to vigorous activity in PE classes for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and The Cooper Institute’s Fitnessgram test for students in grades three through 12.

The bill was signed into law without funding, so Cooper personally led the effort to raise more than $2 million needed to train teachers and get Fitnessgram equipment in schools.

Cooper recently completed a study with the Texas Education Association, Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Jane Nelson involving millions of Texas students. Released in March, the study measures how fitness correlates with a student’s absences, performance on standardized tests and discipline issues. Cooper says it will change the way educators view fitness.

“It is so unbelievably accurate. It would take a foolish person to say that PE doesn’t have a role in education,” he says. “Let’s see if we can change this state, change this nation, starting here in Texas. That’s my goal.”

The Father of Aerobics

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