Dr. Kenneth Cooper speaks swiftly, barely taking a breath between sentences. However, he is by no means a fast talker — someone who tries to affect or persuade with deceptive talk — according to his friends and family. That contrasts with the former opinions of many in the medical community who, almost 40 years ago, thought Cooper's views about exercise and preventive medicine were hogwash.
The Oklahoma-born and bred 77-year-old who founded the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas is now known worldwide as the father of aerobics, having coined the term aerobics in 1966. He is the author of 19 books on fitness (the first being “Aerobics” in 1968), an international lecturer, a fitness researcher, a one-time co-host of a radio program about healthy living, and a physician to celebrities, politicians, athletes and lesser-known people. His long-time patient and friend, President George W. Bush, twice asked him to be U.S. surgeon general, once in 2001 and again in 2006, but Cooper declined both times.
Despite his success, Cooper, at one time, was almost run out of Dallas. How he went from one extreme to the other is a story of perseverance, determination, family support, faith in divine guidance and belief in his calling. His contributions to the industry and the way he persevered to bring those contributions to the forefront are the reasons Club Industry selected him as this year's recipient of the magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Cooper's philosophy is that it is easier to maintain good health through proper exercise, diet and emotional balance than to regain it once it is lost. That philosophy was behind the creation of the Cooper Aerobics Center, which includes the Cooper Clinic, the Cooper Institute, Cooper Concepts and the Cooper Fitness Center, plus the Cooper Aerobics Center at Craig's Ranch in McKinney, TX.
“My goal originally was to combat the No. 1 cause of death in America — that's deaths from cardiovascular disease — and to increase longevity,” Cooper says.
To help him carry out this mission, the medical doctor and researcher founded the Cooper Aerobics Center in 1970. At the time, the center consisted of a two-room, two-employee medical practice and his research practice. The research part of his business allowed Cooper to collect data on patients in his medical practice who agreed to participate and to research the exercise's effect on health and longevity. Since those humble beginnings, the research conducted there has given scientific validation to the tenets now promoted daily in clubs around the world, says Todd Whitthorne, president and CEO of Cooper Concepts, a division of Cooper Aerobics Center. Whitthorne adds that many of those tenets, especially that aerobic conditioning is good for cardiovascular health, are based on the early pioneering work of Cooper.
“It's the science behind the message that Dr. Cooper has provided to the industry and the world,” Whitthorne says. “Yes, we know that exercise is good, but why is it good? Not just Dr. Cooper, but other institutes, too, have shown us why, but Dr. Cooper is a true pioneer and had the vision and understood, before many people did, the vital importance of exercise.”
That importance comes down to “squaring off the curve,” meaning that instead of people's health declining gradually as they age and then die, they can keep their health strong until their final days.
“My dad preaches ‘squaring off the curve.’ What good are the longer years if you don't have your health?” says Dr. Tyler Cooper, who works with his father at the Cooper Aerobics Center and is CEO of Cooper Life, a division of the broader organization. “My dad is truly the father of preventive medicine. I believe preventive medicine is going to reshape health care.”
Tedd Mitchell, president and CEO of the Cooper Clinic, has worked with Cooper for 18 years and says that Cooper has helped the medical community understand the role of prevention and that exercise is in fact medicine.
“You can dose it like you do a blood pressure pill,” says Mitchell. “The development of the exercise prescription is a huge contribution he's made.”
Because of his work, Cooper has received more than 70 awards and honors, including the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service, the C. Everett Koop Health Advocate Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In 1982, the London Times also named Cooper one of the 75 “greatest” people in the world in the preceding 20 years.
Path to Acceptability
Despite the accolades heaped on Cooper, his path hasn't been free from dark times.
Cooper spent two years as a surgeon in the Army and 11 years as a researcher in the Air Force, where he developed the 12-minute fitness test, the treadmill stress test and the Aerobics Point System. These tests helped him coin the term aerobics (defined by Webster's Dictionary as conditioning of the cardiopulmonary system by means of vigorous exercise that seeks to increase efficiency of oxygen intake). He expounded on the importance of aerobics in his first book in 1968. Two years later, he left the Air Force and moved his family to Dallas to start a preventive medicine practice and research institute.
At that time, the idea of preventive medicine was foreign to medical professionals and the general public. Many physicians in Dallas expressed concern that Cooper was trying to put them out of business. Some of them tried to talk their patients out of going to Cooper. Many physicians asked how a doctor could make a living taking care of healthy people.
He showed them how, Mitchell says. However, that didn't come until after several difficult years.
“It was not easy for Ken during those times,” says Millie Cooper, his wife of 49 years. “People were saying he wasn't a real doctor.”
They were also saying that his practice wouldn't last.
At one point, the lack of patients and the ridicule from other physicians became so bad that Cooper considered leaving the practice and re-entering the military, but Millie asked him if he truly believed in prevention. He said yes, and she told him to follow his heart.
Eventually, Cooper's book helped him develop more clientele from Texas and from around the world. He received thousands of letters and dictated the answers to Millie, who typed the responses as she had typed each of the drafts of his first book.
Cooper's office at that time was so small that he couldn't stretch out a patient on the table, Millie says, prompting a patient from Caracas, Venezuela, to say that he'd have to wait until Cooper had a bigger office before he would send his friends to Cooper. His friends wouldn't be impressed with the small office.
At one time, Cooper was called before the Dallas Board of Censures, which considered revoking Cooper's medical license because he was conducting treadmill tests on people with heart disease, an uncommon practice at that time. Cooper stood before the board with the data he had collected showing the benefits of these types of tests. After his “lecture” to the board, the board decided against revoking his license.
However, Cooper's ideas about preventive medicine were still not completely accepted in 1986 when Cooper debated Dr. Henry A. Solomon, the author of “The Exercise Myth,” on “Nightline.”
“You wouldn't think twice about exercise being good for you now, but then, you did,” says Tyler, who watched the debate on TV that night. He says that growing up, he remembers defending his father and his work with aerobics and preventive medicine.
“We don't have to do that anymore,” Tyler says.
However, the dark times continued from 1988 to 1991. That's when the bank called in Cooper's note on the Cooper Aerobics Center, even though Cooper says he was never late on a payment. The bank appraised his property at $5.6 million, which was one-third the amount Cooper paid for it almost 20 years prior, he says. Four times during those years, he received a notice that the bank was going to lock the gates to the Cooper Aerobics Center on the next Monday, but each Monday morning, he headed to the center and found the gates still open.
Cooper relied on his faith and his family to get him through, even telling his son one evening when Tyler came upon him in prayer that God gave Cooper all that he had and he was just the caretaker of it, so God had the right to take away the keys.
Tyler says, “I saw him on the verge of losing everything he had, and in that deep, dark moment, he stepped up and said, ‘You can have it.’”
But Cooper continued as caretaker of his business, spending $800,000 on lawyers fees to keep his business in operation and avoiding bankruptcy.
“I came so close to losing everything,” Cooper says. In 2004, he paid off his mortgage.
Tyler says his father has taught him that trial is a part of life, and it makes you appreciate things.
“If you can't handle a trial in life, you aren't going to get anywhere,” Tyler says. “You never know who a man or woman is until you hold their feet to the fire. That's when you see their character. My parents never wavered. Never wavered about their family, their faith, their task at hand. That's the greatest lesson. When your feet are in the fire, you're still the same person.”
Cooper came through the fire and says he learned much from doing so. When people ask him how he has become successful, he credits four things.
The first is divine intervention.
“I'm convinced that through my prayer and my study, I've been led to places I wouldn't ordinarily have gone,” he says.
He also credits his staff, who he calls “fantastic.”
“I don't hesitate about saying that,” he says.
The third is that the research his institute has done has proven his theory that it is more effective to maintain good health than to regain it once it's lost.
The last reason for his success is that his organization has been able to meet people's needs, he says. When people realize they have a need and you provide a service that helps them get the results they want and need, they will make you successful, he says.
With everything that Cooper has accomplished, many people would say that he has already created a legacy. He has become so well-known throughout the world for coining the term aerobics, for his research on the benefits of aerobics and for his promotion of cardiovascular fitness that one might think he views these accomplishments as his legacy. However, Cooper sees his current passion — that of improving the health and fitness of children — as the legacy for which he will be remembered.
“If I have any legacy, it won't be aerobics,” Cooper says. “It will be this. I have it within my power now to have a movement here that could change this country.”
In 2007, he created the Our Kids Health Foundation to combat childhood obesity. He successfully lobbied the Texas legislature to require school districts to enhance their physical education requirements and to test students yearly on their fitness levels.
The legislature passed the bill but did not fund it, which traditionally means a mandate is never carried out, Cooper says. But this cause was too important to Cooper to stop with just the passage of the bill. He actually wanted to see results. So Cooper donated to all the Texas school districts the Fitnessgram tests that his organization had created and that the legislature had mandated as the yearly tests to be used.
In addition, he raised $2.1 million from private citizens (including a $100,000 donation of his own) to fund the program. The money went to train 20,000 teachers on how to administer the test, marketing for the program and other expenses.
The first year's tests results were released this summer, and they show a steady decline in fitness for children as they age. By seventh grade, 21 percent of the girls and 17 percent of the boys met the health standards in all six of the Fitnessgram tests. By 12th grade,8 percent of the girls and about 9 percent of the boys met the standards.
The declining fitness levels correspond with the decreasing emphasis on physical education in upper grades, according to Cooper.
“I hope these results shock the state into reality and into action,” Cooper says. “We must immunize children against obesity while in elementary schools so that as they age, they are more likely to stay healthy and fit. By the time students graduate, they should be ready mentally and physically to achieve their dreams.”
Cooper is now raising another $1 million so he can study the test results further to make regional comparisons. He also wants to determine whether physically fit students do better academically and whether they have higher attendance rates, lower rates of violence and lower rates of substance abuse. He would also like to improve menus in schools and expand the testing to other states.
Although Cooper easily could afford to retire, he says he will not.
“And you can see why,” he says. “I'm obsessed with this kids' fitness thing. I've got four grandkids. If I don't do something, who else is going to do something?”
Millie says, “It's wonderful at his age to have a second passion that is as great as his first passion.”
Cooper's work has always been his passion rather than just his profession, his family says.
“It's a life's ambition,” says Tyler. “It's not a job. It's who he is. Everything he preaches, he believes. It's a higher calling.”