I am NOT neutral about Ken Cooper. I like the man. I admire his contributions and initiatives; he is an exercise and fitness pioneer whose works have benefited countless citizens. In fact, I consider Ken Cooper an American hero, a trailblazer who provided a foundation for the wellness movement. Ken is also a friend of mine — we have been together on many occasions and shared membership in the late and lamented “National Fitness Leaders Association,” an honorary body whose members were selected by the President’ s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports with support from Allstate Insurance Company and the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce. We have exchanged lots of materials over the years. Going way back, his books on aerobics were among the scientific resources that helped convince my graduate school administrators that wellness was a field deserving of the research I proposed for a doctoral dissertation.
March 4, 2011 was Ken Cooper’s 80th birthday. Let’s all give three cheers for a grand old man responsible for a world of good works. America is fat and unfit, for the most part, but not because Ken Cooper did not do more than his part to promote a healthy nation. In fact, without his presence on this earth for the past 80 years, things would be much worse. A few years ago, I did an extensive interview with Dr. Cooper. I told him that I thought he should consider promoting wellness more and fitness less, however important exercise is. I wanted him to be less of a guru, also, though our celebrity-focused culture no doubt applies all manner of incentives for him to go along with that role. But I have always wanted to see him lose that white coat, doctor outfit with stethoscope dangling from his neck. This first was seen on the cover of his books and later at his websites! In my quality of life way of seeing things, wellness lifestyles are not medical matters but challenges of philosophy and self-management (more more and far beyond the business of a doctor). The doctor image seems to portray an expert with authority, a figure who has all the answers. In a wellness context, the individual is the responsible agent – and a doctor, nurse and for that matter, all other professionals are simply resources for advice, when called upon. These are some of the concerns I raised with Dr. Cooper and are discussed in this interview.
The first challenge in my view is for physicians and other health promoters to empower consumers with the sense that they can take charge of their own lifestyles. (Not because of doctor’s orders but because they appreciate that exercise and a wellness lifestyle represent a better way to live, as well as a healthier choice.) I wonder if now it might be time for Dr. Cooper to go off on a very long vacation – he’s worked hard enough. Is there no end to how much endurance for duty this man has. Maybe he should slow down a bit-smell the roses more-it’s hard to believe that anyone (let alone a guy who just turned 80) is still going so strong.
A little background on the good doctor is in order for some younger readers. Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., M.P.H., wrote the landmark book, “Aerobics” in 1968. This was based on groundbreaking work as a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon and director of the Aerospace Medical Laboratory in San Antonio. “Aerobics” introduced Cooper’s 12-minute test and his “Aerobics Point System.” The book represented a plea to refocus the entire field of medicine away from disease treatment to disease prevention through aerobic exercise. From this time forward, Cooper’s message has been: “It is easier to maintain good health through proper exercise, diet and emotional balance than it is to regain it once it is lost.” For at least 30 years, the message was not heeded. In part because of this message and because of a lot of other similar messages during the last decade, it is now happening – medicine is shifting toward prevention and even health promotion. But the transition is slow.
It is often said that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart brought more beauty into the world than anyone else; it is not unusual to hear similar high praise bestowed upon Cooper. It’s possible that he has motivated more people to exercise in pursuit of good health than any other person. A list of his achievements would take more space than allotted here but I’ll mention just a few:
* Author of more than 20 books, 30 million of which have been sold in 41 languages (and Braille).
* Set the standard for a fitness center. This year marked the 40th anniversary of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, which he founded and continues to head as president and chief executive officer.
* Consultant to the fitness world. At present, more than 2,500 universities and public schools utilize all or a part of his programs, as do military organizations in this country and abroad.
* Influence on public health. Cooper’s books, the impact of the Cooper Center research programs, his lectures and other initiatives have been highly influential in the 48 percent decrease in deaths from heart disease reported in America between 1968 and 1990.
* Promotion of exercise near and far. Cooper has appeared in fifty other nations. In Brazil, running is called “coopering” or “doing the cooper” and the national fitness test in Hungary is called the “Cooperteszt.”
* Professional consultation to individuals and business groups. Cooper and his staff are available for hire to assist companies of all kinds in the start up and design of wellness-related facilities and services. They do feasibility studies, facility design, club management, staffing, exercise equipment recommendations and more. He also manages several websites and markets a line of vitamin/mineral supplements.
* Produces and performs a weekly one-hour radio show.
When we spoke for purposes of this interview, we spent a bit of time discussing mutual friends, memories of meetings over the years, our respective personal fitness activities, the National Wellness Institute and assorted current events. He proudly mentioned the accomplishments of Cooper Center staff members, one of whom had just competed in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. Despite preparation at the Cooper Clinic, this person only managed the first two events (the 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike) – the run became a near-death experience. While we expressed respect for the dedication and commitment required for Ironman distance events, we agreed that such ordeals are not conducive to or even consistent with optimal health-thank goodness!
My first question was about personal change. I asked if his ideas had evolved over the years, volunteering that I sensed a shift in focus from a strict emphasis on exercise/fitness/ prevention/and testing to a broader awareness and promotion of personal effectiveness. In short, I noted a deliberate move toward wellness. He readily and enthusiastically agreed. However, he did not go on, as I anticipated, about such dimensions as humor and play, critical thinking, relationships, emotional intelligence or the quest for meaning and purpose, though I’m sure he values and promotes all of the above-and more.
Instead, he launched into a discussion of the Cooper Clinic and the research being done there on coronary heart disease and risk factors-and followed that with a commentary on high blood pressure and hypertension, HDL cholesterol and HDL ratios, percent body fat, smoking and alcohol consumption, treadmill performance time and pulmonary function! He mentioned the Center’s “Fitnessgram” project. To date, standard tests and individualized fitness report cards for more than ten million students have been distributed. Also noted was the fact that research data are collected daily at other divisions of the Cooper Aerobics Center. The Cooper Clinic has dozens of physicians who conduct comprehensive physical evaluations and provide recommendations for attaining and maintaining good health. The Center’s health club has 3,000 members engaged in supervised exercise programs. Each day, information is gathered and added to the computerized database. As at other high-end facilities, members have access to state-of-the-art workout facilities, classes, personal coaching, a day spa and outdoor/indoor running tracks. Cooper said he’s personally active in other Center offerings such as the live-in programs that range from four days to two weeks and include medical evaluations, nutritional counseling, supervised exercise, stress reduction training, wellness workshops and personal counseling.
Cooper did not think there was any conflict of interest in recommending his own brand of vitamins and mineral supplements, saying that this aspect of his program was integral to on-going research being done at the Center. I did not pursue this. I might at some future date, when I feel more like playing an investigative journalist ala John Steward or Mike Wallace. But, this chat was designed as a friendly interview.
Dr. Cooper is passionate about his mission. The ambitious agenda and diverse endeavors give meaning and purpose to his existence. His role is to reach out and be of service to others. His pace at 80 is not, of course, what it was – no one entering his ninth decade can be. His physician son Tyler will be his successor. After all, nobody, not even the Father of Aerobics, can live forever. I mentioned and he enthusiastically endorsed the sentiments of Hans Selye, who said, “there ‘s nothing wrong with retirement, so long as it doesn’t get in the way of your work.” He continues to speak with animation about his projects — he is a happy man who is somewhat maniacally-focused (in a nice way!) on his Cooper Center, Cooper websites, Cooper supplements, Cooper research, Cooper travels, Cooper lectures, Cooper videos, Cooper contacts and much, much more projects and services the names of which start with the word “Cooper.” It would not surprise me if there’s a fast food restaurant somewhere that offers a low-fat “Cooper Whooper Burger.” While financial and other forms of success seem to have come to him in abundance, he remains a warm, engaging and kindly figure who is remarkably friendly and accessible.
One of my questions was going to be “How do you avoid getting treated like a guru?” but decided that this was not appropriate for the obvious reason that he clearly enjoys being a guru. People probably reinforce it for him and it serves to boost the Cooper enterprises. Considering that he is first and foremost a physician prescribing for the ill and worried, well and unfit, that’s probably what his audience desires. Finally, given that he will be 90 in ten years and a centenarian ten years later, I wondered if he wants to be thought of as the “God of Aerobics” forever? But, I already felt I knew the answer. He would love it.