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Americans Aren’t Listening to Ken Cooper

The father of aerobics has had a monumental career. He wants to see the U.S. embrace "Cooperized" fitness. But for now, the 87-year-old is taking his talents to China.
dr Kenneth cooper
Shane Kislack

Dr. Kenneth Cooper is the father of aerobics, the reason Brazilians refer to going for a jog as “doing their cooper.” The 87-year-old still has a daily workout routine that would put some 20-somethings to shame. The 2019 Lifetime Achievement winner in D CEO’s Excellence in Healthcare Awards has been interviewed by Barbara Walters and Ted Koppel and featured in just about every major publication. He has a Super Bowl ring. He has presidential friends and patients, past and present, all over the world. One time while on stage, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush nodded to him in the crowd and apologized that he wasn’t working out. Another time, he did a morning jog with a Brazilian president, and he says the papers next day read, “President Does Cooper With Cooper.” (They’ve loved him in Brazil ever since he lent his philosophies to the World Cup-winning 1970 national team, although Cooper credits this guy named Pelé.)

But inside his wood-paneled office at the Preston Hollow campus of Cooper Aerobics, surrounded by relics of a very full career, Cooper is talking about what’s next.

That would be the company’s expansion into China, where Cooper’s agent just inked a 10-year, “sizable figure” deal to allow a medical device-maker to use the Cooper name. There are Cooper complexes in Nanjing and Beijing. “The truth of the matter is it appears that my reputation in China—my name in China—is becoming better known than in the United States,” Cooper says. He aims to get youth there to take the Cooper Institute’s FitnessGram test. “I’m trying to get a comparative analysis so I can embarrass America,” Cooper says, adding that his preliminary testing in China tells him the country would put us to shame. “I need something to shock America back to reality.”

“We’ve got a problem,” he goes on. “We spend twice as much money as anybody else in the world on healthcare, yet we rank 43rd in longevity. Too much care, too late.”

That might not sound all that original to a business executive engaged in the healthcare ecosystem’s gradual move to a value-based system, which puts a greater emphasis on prevention. But it’s a message Cooper has been preaching long before anyone took it seriously.

And he hasn’t stopped. Cooper seems to still have something left to prove, even as he approaches the 50-year anniversary of Cooper Aerobics in 2020.

The career-changing moment for the ever-sharp and fast-talking Cooper occurred two years before that founding, in 1968, when he published Aerobics. The book brought the world that word, popularized jogging, and shed light on the positive effects of being fit. He wrote it while he was a physician in the U.S. Air Force, working with NASA on astronaut-appropriate conditioning programs. His books have sold 30 million copies and have been translated into 41 different languages.

Cooper grew up in Oklahoma and was a Sooner for undergraduate and medical school, before studying public health at Harvard. He’s quick to credit the role of research in everything he’s accomplished and notes that he established the Cooper Institute first, a nonprofit that serves as the research wing of the operation. He saw his first patient six months later.

The Institute has provided the backbone for Cooper’s standing as the father of aerobics. He has published almost 700 papers through the years that demonstrate physical activity as an effective preventive medicine.

One recent bit of publicity came after the Institute’s Dr. Benjamin Willis, working with researchers from the University of North Texas and UT Southwestern Medical Center, published a study that showed physical fitness for people in the middle of their lives can lower the risk for depression, heart disease, and dying early. Time Health put together a highly shareable, and highly shared, video (below) about the findings, which were also featured by The New York Times and others.

Yet in some ways Cooper still feels his research doesn’t get the respect it deserves. “We’re probably better known around the world than UT Southwestern Medical School, and they get millions and millions of dollars for research,” he says. “We have to scrape to get the money to support our research.”

Both lore and some sense of controversy grew around Cooper and his ideas throughout the 1970s and ’80s. He went on Nightline in 1984 to debate Dr. Henry Solomon, the author of a book called The Exercise Myth. Solomon needled Cooper about how there was no data to support claims that exercise helps prolong life, that it was all about making the person feel good.

“I said, ‘You’re right,’” Cooper recalls. Cooper told Solomon that exercise lessens depression and data proving the myriad positive effects of exercise were on the way. Decades later, studies like the one put into the Time Health video continue to prove Cooper right.

Plenty of the media attention was less combative. In 1987, The New York Times called Cooper the “high priest” of a two-decade “fitness and exercise boom” that the exercise crusade resembled a religious movement. In 1995, when Texas Monthly explored the way Cooper had changed his mind through the years to account for the possibility that too much vigorous activity could actually be harmful or deadly—that there was a sweet spot—the magazine matter-of-factly referred to Cooper as “the nation’s most famous fitness expert.”

It might be difficult, in this age of the Instagram influencer, to make the same claim today. But it’s impossible to overstate Cooper’s impact on the nation’s most recent fitness kick, the one driven at least in part by those same influencers. Cooper’s Aerobics cracked open a whole new way of thinking, and his research continues to drive home its importance.

Today, the thing he pieced together in 1970 with a couple of employees encompasses 30 acres and seven entities. The Cooper Clinic is the operation’s medical side. There’s also an on-site hotel, a spa, a supplement business, and Cooper Wellness Strategies, which caters programs to entities like corporations, senior living homes, and commercial fitness centers.

The company rebranded in 2011, encouraging people to get Cooperized through an eight-step process. Dr. Tyler Cooper, whom Ken’s wife, Millie, was pregnant with in 1970, is the company’s CEO.

But the founder is still very much part of the operations as chairman emeritus of a board that features names like Troy Aikman, Arthur Blank, Ray Hunt, Susan Dell, and Roger Staubach.

As long as he’s living, Cooper says he will continue to show up to work. And as long as he’s showing up, he plans on doing it the same way—by reading from the Bible in the morning and going to the gym at quitting time.

Cooper credits what he calls divine intervention, plus the team he has around him, for all his success. “It’s been an uphill battle,” he says, “but I’ve been blessed many times.”

This story originally appeared in the December issue of D CEO.

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