Kenneth Cooper, MD, had plenty of naysayers when he opened a preventive-health facility in north Dallas in 1970. There was no money in preventing disease, they told him.
What started as a two-person practice has become a fitness-and-research empire that now employs more than 700 people and had a 2012 operating budget of $55 million. Cooper did not see this coming.
“My vision was finite. God’s vision was infinite,” he said.
This month marks the 45th anniversary of Cooper’s best-selling book Aerobics. That book sparked a generation of runners, increasing their number from about 100,000 to 10 million a decade after the book’s release. In 1987, Runners World declared that Cooper was responsible for motivating more people to run than another other person on Earth. The book was printed in 41 languages, including Braille, and has sold more than 30 million copies.
Cooper, who turned 82 March 4, still sees patients, works 60 hours a week and travels extensively.
Cooper’s concept was simple: How much exercise did someone need to be fit? While in the Air Force in the late 1960s, Cooper worked with 27,000 men and women and developed a point system to measure physical activity for 41 sports. He also developed a 1.5-mile and 12-minute mile test to measure aerobic capacity, which is still used as a standard fitness barometer.
Cooper began his practice in an era when exercise was considered dangerous. In 1971, he was called before the Board of Censors of the Dallas County Medical Society. They were alarmed that he was assessing his patients’ fitness by using a treadmill.
“They thought I was going to kill my patients,” he said.
Cooper did have to alter his fitness advice in the years after his book was published. He had not told people to quit smoking or change their dietary habits, believing that fitness would trump bad habits. He also thought that more exercise was better, regardless of the duration.
“I was getting phone calls from distraught wives telling him that their husbands were getting their (aerobic) points but ignored everything else and were having heart attacks at 55,” he said.
Based on research, he determined there were diminishing benefits running more than 15 miles a week, and incorporated advice on tobacco, alcohol and diet.
The Cooper Clinic has amassed one of the world’s largest research databases. The Cooper Center Longitudinal Study (CLSS) database contains more than 250,000 records from almost 100,000 individuals representing more than 1,800,000 person-years of observation. The CCLS is one of the most highly referenced databases containing more than 3,000 variables and considered the world’s foremost repository of information on fitness. The data collection began Cooper’s first patient in December 1970.
The clinic has spawned more than 600 research studies. His 1989 landmark study in the Journal of the American Medical Association established the long-standing guideline that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity three times a week decreases all-cause mortality and increases life expectancy. That article has been referenced in more than 2700 other studies.
Two recent CLSS studies each have received millions of online hits. Cooper Institute, Cooper Clinic and UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers found that the most fit middle-age adults are much less likely to develop dementia in their senior years than those who are the least fit at midlife. The study was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in February.
Many in that same team used the CLSS in a study last fall in the Archives of Internal Medicine that suggested middle-age fitness had a greater impact on preventing chronic disease than overall survival.
Cooper twice turned down President George W. Bush’s offer to become surgeon general because he would have had to distance himself from the Cooper Clinic.
Cooper is frustrated that his fitness message has more impact overseas than in the U.S. In April, he will be making his ninth trip to China. The government wants him to replicate his center in that country.
“China is where we (the U.S.) were in 1990. There is fast food on every corner. Everyone is smoking. They will be the same situation as us unless they change what they’re doing. I made a speech to 300 corporate executives there and one said that I had more impact than 30 years of political relations. I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why are you working with the enemy?’ I’m trying to improve relations between the two countries,” he said.
In Texas, he worked with Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) to bring physical education requirements back into grade school in 2001. His FITNESSGRAM testing tool, created in 1982 and what ultimately replaced the President’s Council on Physical Fitness test, is in peril in Texas because of tight education funding in the state. That exasperates him.
“How can you show improvement without a test? What if we eliminated reading and math testing? Are they more important than health?” he asked rhetorically.
Cooper does not accept new patients. Those he sees have been with him for decades. On a recent weekend, three of his patients died – two were 92 years old and one was 85.
“My practice has turned into a geriatric practice,” he quipped. “My patients are so old it takes me a long time to get through appointments.”
Cooper, who was a high-school state champion miler in Oklahoma and all-state basketball player, still walks two miles a day in less than 30 minutes 4-6 days a week. He also does strength training three days a week. For people over 60 years old, he advocates nearly half of physical activity be devoted to resistance work to combat the loss of lean muscle tissue and bone density.
He contrasts his condition with that of his peers in his medical school graduating class at the University of Oklahoma.
“Half of my med school class has already died, and most of the rest can’t travel anymore,” he said.
Steve Jacob is editor of D Healthcare Daily and author of the new book Health Care in 2020: Where Uncertain Reform, Bad Habits, Too Few Doctors and Skyrocketing Costs Are Taking Us. He can be reached at [email protected]