DALLAS — When you’re the Father of Aerobics, when you coined the phrase and spread the word and stuck to your guns despite critics who didn’t put much stock in preventive medicine, you don’t miss your workout.
The Dallas Morning News reports that’s even if you’re 87, even if you recently underwent emergency gallbladder surgery, even if your calendar is as full as a gym on Jan. 1.
Which is why, on a recent Friday afternoon after seeing his last patient of the day, Dr. Kenneth Cooper emerged from the dressing room at the Dallas fitness center of the 30-acre Preston Road facility that bears his name.
He’s wearing a royal blue T-shirt with that globally recognized name printed in big letters and tucked into a pair of black shorts. His legs are strong and muscular, a testament to the 45,000 miles they’ve carried him — 37,000 during 40 years of running; the rest walked since 2004, the year he broke the tibial plateau in his right knee while skiing. (“I always liked downhill skiing and was quite good,” he says.)
As he does most every weekday, he rides a stationary bike for 30 to 32 minutes, sometimes capping that off with a treadmill walk before heading to the weight machines. He does his usual circuit of 10 machines, counting aloud through 20 to 30 repetitions.
When he gets home, he’ll walk Scarlett, his 14-month-old Maltese. He weighs 168 pounds, the same number he’s seen when he’s stepped on the scale every day for the last almost 60 years.
Fifty years ago this month, Cooper published the groundbreaking book “Aerobics.” He’s written 18 more books since, but this was the one that set the course, the plan and the theory that led to the popularity of running as well as arguably to every spin class, step class, Latin dance class, aqua exercise class, obstacle-course run, boot camp workout and high intensity interval training.
Think of him and his book as the ancestor whose name might not be familiar to younger generations, but whose influence is as palpable as the DNA that gives us blue eyes or dark hair or the inability to carry a tune.
“Dr. Cooper’s work provided me the pathway to establish my fitness industry career,” says Terri Arends, group fitness director at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center, which is known for its innovative and large array of classes. “I am so blessed I can get up daily and truly love my work.”
Cooper wrote the book when he was a physician in the U.S. Air Force. His wife, Millie, typed the manuscript. It has sold 30 million copies and been translated into 41 languages,
“I wanted to motivate people to take care of themselves,” Cooper says of a time when close to 45 percent of Americans smoked (compared with 15 percent today) and only 100,000 jogged (a number now well in the two-digit millions). “I said, ‘We need to get this out; it will save lives.’ ”
“I read both books, ‘Aerobics’ and ‘New Aerobics,’ in college during the ’70s,” says Tony Reed, a Dallas author, technology consultant and co-founder of the National Black Marathoners Association. “He wrote that some insulin-dependent diabetics might decrease or eliminate insulin if they maintained a fitness program. As a pre-diabetic, this caught my attention. So I set a lifetime goal of averaging three miles per day of running. As of December 31, 2017, I had run 43,500 miles, averaged 3.08 miles per day and am still not on insulin.
“I pretty much credit 100 percent to Dr. Cooper,” says Reed, whose book Running Shoes Are Cheaper Than Insulin chronicles the 130-plus marathons he’s run on all seven continents. “I never would have connected the dots to fitness and diabetes. That’s one of the reasons I co-founded the National Black Marathoners Association, because diabetes is the deadliest killer in the African-American community.”
Cooper added an “s” to the adjective aerobic, which means relating to oxygen, to name his regimen, which began as a training program to help astronauts prepare for returning to earth from a weightless environment in space.
“It was the mystique of astronauts that attracted people,” he says.
But “Aerobic”s offered a plan for anyone. It’s essentially a point system: Participants strive to reach 30 to 35 points per week through exercise. The higher the exertion level, the more quickly points add up. When a summary of the workout appeared in Reader’s Digest in March 1968, Cooper says, it went “viral, which wasn’t a word then.” (Nor, officially, was “aerobics,” which first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986).
“I was a pilot for Eastern Airlines,” writes Sandy Scott on the Cooper Aerobics Facebook page, “and they had the foresight to place a free copy in the mailbox of each of the almost 4,000 pilots on staff. I began following the program religiously and wound up getting back to running in my mid-thirties, eventually winning national running titles in six different events.”
The book spawned a phenomenon that wasn’t always positive. “There was initially controversy in what I did because I was taking care of healthy people,” he says. When he was interviewed by Barbara Walters, “she was very rude,” he says. “She called me a fraud.” (But, he adds, when he told her he had an ongoing exercise program with the U.S. Air Force, “she found what I was telling her was truthful and she was impressed.”) On the ABC show “Nightline,” he debated cardiologist Henry Solomon, author of a book called “The Exercise Myth.”
“I was a radical,” he says.
But he stuck to his beliefs and his well-documented research of 145,000 individuals through the years — proving what seems so obvious in these days of gyms on every corner and an infinite array of YouTube workouts at the ready: Exercise is medicine.
He’s preached his fitness gospel in 50 countries over the last half-century. Right in that front pew would probably be Brazil, where Cooper trained the national soccer team that went on to win the World Cup in 1970. His influence is still felt in this country where running is called “doing the Cooper.”
“To all the world, our team was the best conditioned team,” says Claudia Coutinho, a Brazilian physician whose late father, Claudio Coutinho, was the World Cup-winning team’s physical fitness coach. “What goes to FIFA (Federation of International Football Association) goes to the world. We started putting signs up on the Copacabana Beach, marking off kilometers so people would start doing the Cooper method themselves.”
Her father died in 1981, but she and Cooper maintain a close connection. They recently talked via Skype, says Cooper, who was back in Sao Paolo a few years ago for a presentation. Afterward, he says, “350 people were waiting to have their photo taken. I autographed a lot of shirts and caps.”
Even more recently, he’s taken on a much larger contingent: China, which has 19 percent of the world’s population, he says, but 30 percent of its diabetes. He and his son Tyler, president and CEO of Cooper Aerobics and also a preventive medicine physician, are trying to change that by focusing on reducing the obesity rate of Chinese children.
Far from being discouraged at the high numbers, the project revs Cooper as does, well, life. His ability to remember dates and statistics — which he rattles off during an interview with nary a pause — is astonishing.
The only breaks in words can be measured in the nanoseconds it takes to pick up the phone and hear who’s on the other end. He offers advice or answers questions, always friendly, always professional, always talking as fast as his footsteps on the treadmill.
After each interruption, he says with a bit more glee than apology, “This is a crazy day.”
As if, for the record, he’d have it any other way.
— “If you’re 80, you should be able to make a mile in 17 minutes. If you can, you have an 84 percent chance if you’re a man and an 86 percent chance if you’re a woman to live to age 90.”
— He appeared on the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret” and on the “Today” show 10 times. In 2002, this question was on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”: “The name of what fitness activity was coined by Dr. Kenneth Cooper in 1968?” In December 2009, “Aerobics” was the answer to the Final “Jeopardy!” question.
— His go-to snack: cashews.
— Fastest mile he ever ran: 4 minutes, 18 seconds.
— He has date night with his wife, Millie, every Saturday.
— “I’m trying to encourage the U.S. to motivate people over 65 to stay healthy. If you retire at 62, you increase morbidity by 20 percent.”
— He’s climbed Mount Rainier twice, Mount Fuji once and been to Antarctica three times.
— “You don’t stop exercising when you get old; you get old when you stop exercising.”
— Although aerobics “provides the most health benefits,” he says, the older we get, the more we need to strength train.
— He wears a Fitbit and strives to get 5,000 steps. He points out that the stationary bike doesn’t measure steps, thus his falling short of the typically recommended 10,000.
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