The Story of the Man Who Invented Aerobics | Podcast

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When you think of great innovators in American life, many last names come to mind: Ford, Edison, Jobs. But how about Cooper? 

You probably haven't heard his name, but he’s done as much as any single doctor in America to extend the life and health of Americans. And he did it all without performing a single operation. Or inventing a single drug or medical device.

He's the physician to presidents and CEOs, and he helped put astronauts in space. If that's not enough, his work has most likely impacted your life personally. If daily, strenuous exercise has changed your life, or the life of a loved one, you have Dr. Ken Cooper to thank. He’s the father of the aerobics movement, and has done as much research in the field as any other physician in America. 

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The term wasn’t in the dictionary when Cooper came out with his book Aerobics. It went on to sell 30 million copies, and had a simple premise: vigorous exercise can extend and improve our lives and our health. 

“When I wrote the book, it was a time where close to 45 percent of Americans smoked and very few jogged or worked out,” Cooper explained.

It is now conventional wisdom that rigorous exercise dramatically lowers rates of heart disease and cancer. But there was nothing conventional about the reception Cooper got from the medical establishment at the time of his book’s publishing. Like so many innovators, his work was met with fierce resistance within his own profession. 

“When the book first came out in 1968, I saw titles in medical newspaper articles that said there's just going to be streets full of dead joggers if more Americans follow my advice,” Cooper said. “Every time somebody over 40 died while jogging, I heard about it from my critics.”

It took a while for the data to reveal a different story. Data created by a mass movement Cooper’s book helped unleash.

“It was an odd thing back in the 1960s to see someone jogging alone in the streets,” Cooper recalls. “Not many people in the country did it.”

There were only 100,000 joggers nationwide when his book was released in the late 1960’s. But in the ensuing years, the exercise and jogging craze exploded. 

“By 1990, we had 35 million joggers,” Cooper gloated. 

That would have been cause enough for excitement, but it was the next data point that really got Cooper animated.

“It turns out that from 1960 to 1990, heart disease dropped 48 percent,” Cooper said. “Forty-eight percent.”

The very thing the medical establishment thought would kill people over 40 was now extending their lives.

The connection between regular, strenuous exercise and lower rates of heart disease was established, and Cooper would go on to be a pioneer in the world of preventive medicine.

How did it all happen? It wasn’t anything, it turns out, Cooper planned.

He’d been an athlete in high school and college, but all of that changed when he started his medical career. The exceedingly long hours as a medical student and intern led to some bad habits.

“I did nothing but eat, and jumped in weight over those years of work and early marriage from 168 to 204 pounds,” Cooper explained.  

And then something happened that changed his life. 

“At 29 years of age, I went water-skiing for the first time in eight years, trying to ski a slalom course up at Lake Texoma in southern Oklahoma,” he said. “About halfway through, way overweight and deconditioned, I had a cardiac arrhythmia that hit me hard. My heart was jumping out of my chest, beating very, very rapidly. I was lightheaded. I thought I was going to pass out there on the water.”

He continued.

“By the time I got to the emergency room, it was all back to normal. The only thing wrong with me was that I was out of shape. That shot me back into reality. I lost the weight within six months. I ran my first marathon a year and a half later.”

The change in Cooper’s quality of life shocked him.

“I was hypertensive, borderline diabetic, and had no energy and told my wife I felt I was dying from mental apathy,” Cooper recalled. “That all changed. I felt much better physically, was depressed less, was less of a hypochondriac, and I had a much more positive attitude toward life. That all happened to me.”

It didn’t take long for Cooper to apply what he learned personally to his professional life. 

“I thought that this was a field of medicine that's been sadly ignored,” Cooper explained. “I was planning on being an ophthalmologist or an orthopedic surgeon after I finished my two years of in the military. But this traumatic thing happened to me. I think God had a different plan for me.”

Not much else but divine intervention could explain what happened next. Cooper was working in the Air Force, and soon found himself creating the fitness program for NASA astronauts. It was there that he would refine his big idea: aerobics. 

Cooper soon found himself at another crossroads. A life in the military, with all its administrative duties and challenges, no longer excited him. So he made another life-altering decision—perhaps the hardest of his life. It was time to start his own clinic to study the impact of exercise on health and diseases.

“I had no insurance. I had no separation pay. I had a wife that was pregnant with my son, Tyler, and a 5-year-old daughter,” Cooper recalled. 

Like most innovators, starting his own clinic from scratch took courage. With some help from a local businessman, he started the now world-renowned Cooper Clinic in the heart of Dallas.

Most people Cooper knew thought he was crazy.

“People would tell me that there was no way I could make a living trying to take care of healthy people,” Cooper explained. “People want physicians when they’re sick, not when they’re well. And for the first couple of years, I thought they were right.”

He set up his Aerobics Center in a two-room office with two employees: another doctor and a secretary. Cooper’s dream began to manifest itself in late 1971, when he borrowed money to move to an old mansion on 8 acres.

The pushback against his work continued from the experts in his field. But Cooper persisted. After collecting massive amounts of data on the effects of exercise and stress testing on the lives of his ever-expanding patient base, Cooper and his upstart clinic started to make waves, releasing their projected findings that aerobics would not only drastically improve health but also extend lives by six years.

Time would ultimately vindicate Cooper. And change the way medical professionals viewed his work.

“In 2009, we had 96,000 people we'd followed for 20 years. And we predicted our men would live 87.5 years, women 90.5 years. That's over 10 years longer than the national average.”

Cooper continued the story.

“That was controversial in 2009. But within the past couple of months, Harvard School of Public Health published a nursing study on their physicians and nurses, a 34-year follow-up, 126,000 people they studied. They looked at five risk factors: proper weight, proper diet, exercising at least 30 minutes, no use of tobacco in any form, and only minimal alcohol consumption. And for those who had none of those risk factors, the average life expectancy for men was 87.5 years, women 93.5 years. Almost exactly what we said 10 years earlier.”

Cooper’s work is now respected worldwide, and his data sets are among the best in the field. 

“The Lord's given me a long life to see it happen during my lifetime,” Cooper gushed. He’s not only a science guy, but a God guy, too. His faith is a deep part of his life, alongside the data.

Cooper laments the fact that our medical system doesn’t reward preventive medicine. It only pays doctors and hospitals when patients get sick, but doesn’t incentivize anyone to keep patients healthy. 

None of that has slowed Cooper down. Always, he preaches the gospel of exercise and good living. He’s trying to encourage people over 65 to stay healthy. "You don't stop exercising when you get old,” Cooper warned. “You get old when you stop exercising."

Cooper gets especially passionate about the subject of retirement. “I don't have to work anymore. I'm well off. I can retire,” Cooper said. “But I'd be bored. I’d get sick. I went for three weeks on a beautiful cruise, and I could hardly wait to get back and see patients.”

The motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, once said: “You don't retire; you refire.”

Retirement isn’t in the cards for Cooper. He still puts in a six-day work week. 

“I'm still refiring,” he said with a smile.

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