Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., 77, is a former Air Force doctor whose first book, Aerobics, published in 1968, reinvented the way athletes, the medical profession, and normal folks (including recovering heart attack patients) regard exercise and cardiovascular health. Cooper, an outspoken maverick, has often been called wrong—and just as often been proved right. He’s still seeing patients, still exercising every day, and still innovating and advocating on behalf of fitness and the human heart, largely through the Dallas, Texas–based Cooper Aerobics Center, which he started as a small medical practice in 1970.
Q: It wouldn’t be wrong to call you a medical evangelist, would it?
A: No, not at all. In fact, I felt at one point I was actually being called to be a medical missionary, then realized I already was one. I’m a Christian man—we’re taught that the body is the repository of the soul. It’s sinful not to take care of it. Simple as that. It’s a gift that we can burnish, so why don’t we? Most of us are better at changing the oil in our cars than we are at caring for our bodies.
Q: It’s hard to believe now that your first book actually caused a lot of controversy.
A: The medical hierarchy went crazy. I spent that whole year under fire. What that book recommended was exactly opposite of what we’d all been taught in medical school—that what you’re supposed to do is “act your age.” Exercise over 40? Build bone and muscle over 40? Run over 40? “What are you trying to do, Cooper, kill people?” “The streets will be full of dead joggers if they follow Cooper!” From ’68 to 1982 I got letters from irate widows—their husbands had followed my running rules, and dropped dead of heart attacks. But these guys didn’t stop smoking, they didn’t change their diets; in fact, they thought running would give them permission to go way overboard on the other stuff. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes. The Cooper Clinic celebrates its 38th anniversary this year, and I’ve been fighting the medical community all the way.
Q: The controversy didn’t end with the first book, did it?
A: Oh, no. In 1968 I said that people over 40 can exercise; then when we innovated stress testing, the medical community said I’d kill more people than I’d save. In ’72 I was exercising cardiac patients—“Now you’re gonna kill ‘em for sure!” In the late 1970s I was recommending regular mammograms, and was criticized for trying to kill women. In the 1980s I was criticized for doing PSA [prostate-specific antigen] testing for men. In the 1990s I talked about the need for taking antioxidants to fight free radicals, and I was criticized for that. Now it’s all become mainstream medicine.
Q: What most concerns you about our health as a nation right now?
A: This epidemic of obesity. Overweight kids, overweight adolescents. There’s been a tenfold increase in diabetes. We’re seeing strokes at 25! This is a tragedy, and given what we know about exercise and nutrition, there’s no reason for it. Stop with fast foods. Avoid trans fats. Count calories. Move! Believe me, it’s cheaper to maintain good health than it is to regain it after it’s lost. That said, I spend half my time on my radio show and in personal appearances correcting bad science. Wrong headlines, bad interpretations of studies. People read those headlines, and then they panic. It’s needless.
If you could write a one-size-fits-all prescription for health, what would it be?The first line of defense is healthy lungs, so movement comes first. Just go out and walk. Just begin. Walk on the sidewalk, walk at the high school track, walk at the mall. Get a pedometer and walk. Two miles in 30 minutes three times a week; two miles in 35 minutes four times a week; two miles in 40 minutes five times a week. That’ll move you out of a sedentary state into health and longevity; increase it, and you’ll be at the peak of aerobic health. If you don’t move, you won’t be able to move, simple as that.
Q: Do you practice what you preach?
A: You bet. I walk two or three miles every night after work, and do 20 minutes of weight training at least twice a week. It’s never too late—you can grow healthier as you grow older. In spite of what we know about heart health, gut health, etc., we’re still not “officially” doing enough preventive medicine—it’s all reparative, which is expensive, and uphill all the way. Believe me, you do not want to have a reason to go to the hospital.