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Conversation With: Dr. Ken Cooper, Reflecting On Aerobics And Longevity

Dr. Ken Cooper is perhaps the most important aerobics researcher in the United States. He literally wrote the book on it—1968's Aerobics has since been translated into more than 40 languages. Here, D CEO partner David Johnson interviewed the Dallas-based Cooper about his recent recognition from the National Football Foundation (despite, mind you, never actually playing the sport) and the impact his aerobics research has had on the life expectancy of millions throughout the world.
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Dr. Ken Cooper is perhaps the most important aerobics researcher in the United States. He literally wrote the book on it—1968’s Aerobics, as he’ll note in the interview below, has since been translated into more than 40 languages. Its teachings have helped professional athletes stay on the field, but they’ve also been important benchmarks for all of us regular folks who are trying to extend our lives by being healthier.

Here, D CEO partner David Johnson interviewed Cooper about his recent recognition from the National Football Foundation (despite, mind you, never actually playing the sport) and the impact his aerobics research has had on the livelihood of millions throughout the world. It’s been edited for length and clarity. Enjoy.

David Johnson: You’ve been active in sports. When I think of Aerobics, when I think of runners and Jim Ryan and all the great runners using Aerobics, I never think of it transferring into football, but I guess it’s portable?

Dr. Kenneth Cooper: Well, the National Football Foundation was established primarily for high school and college football players. Usually they induct someone into the hall of fame if they have historically done very well at football and then done well after, like Jerry Jones was inducted just a couple years ago.

So they came to me back in September and said we want to induct you into this hall of fame and I said you guys are all wrong. I never played football. I played football for about six months and that was in my sophomore year in high school. After that, I played left end but it was more like left out—so I decided that wasn’t the thing for me to do, so I transferred to basketball and track. That’s my history. So I’ve never exactly been involved in football, but I’ve taken care of football players and I’ve researched work on them for a long period of time so that’s one reason they correlate me with this honor.

Johnson: Your work in aerobics, it’s become international. You spend as much time out of the country as you do inside the country. You have followers all over the world now, don’t you?

Cooper: That’s correct. I was in Brazil last September, my 21st visit, speaking in Belo Horizonte to a cardiology meeting. The book (Editor’s note: He’s referring to his book Aerobics, first published in 1968) is in 41 languages, so we are known around the world, particularly for the 12-minute test. That’s what I used back in 1970 to train the Brazilian World Cup soccer team in preparation to play Mexico City at 7,300 feet in 1970. I spent one year asking them to participate in our program in addition to their soccer, which consisted of running 20 miles a week because we knew these four things.

I told the players if you’re aerobically conditioned it will delay the onset of fatigue, so it will reduce injuries. No. 2, you will play better in the second half of the game. That’s very important in professional soccer: 45 minutes, 30 minutes, then 45 minutes for the second half.

Third, You’ll play better in the second half of the season because all teams go down due to injuries.

Four, it will prolong your career. So ,with that introduction with Claudio Coutinho (Editor’s note: the world famous Brazilian soccer manager), we started the program in 1970. We trained the Brazilian team. We had them 20 miles a week in addition to their soccer. On the first run back in April 1969, they averaged 1.87 miles in 12 minutes. After my program, for one year, they averaged 2.2 miles in 12 minutes

They went to Mexico City and won six consecutive matches. They won the World Cup and retired the World Cup. In the six games, there were four games tied at the half and two games where they were one goal ahead. They defeated Italy by a final score of 4-1. So my aerobics program became very popular in Brazil, but they couldn’t translate Aerobics into Portuguese. So they nicknamed it doing your Cooper!

The big thing too was the 12-minute test, the Cooper Test, which has now became the official test for FIFA since 1990. Most national soccer teams are using the 12 minute test, the mile and half run, or the one-and-three-quarter mile run. Well, Tom Landry picked up on that back in 1970; that’s when we started using the Cooper Test with the Cowboys. During the days of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach, that was a very common thing that was done. So I worked with the Green Bay Packers, I worked with the University of Nebraska football team, I worked with the Cowboys, so I spent a combination that I really enjoyed. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m getting this award.

Johnson: Are the basics of aerobics as you teach them as you pass these on the same in 2015 as they were in 1970 when you started all this or has there been an evolution?

Cooper: Well, there has been an evolution, because it’s possible to do too much and your body will break down trying to avoid injuries. So I’ve had to change my recommendation to some extent. For example, in the first book I said, if you run and exercise regularly, forget about your smoking, obesity, your diet, because exercise can compensate for that.

Later, I said there is nothing known to man to protect against coronary disease, whether its medicine, surgery, or marathon running. So that was a change in attitude. Also I said don’t need muscle skeletal conditioning if you aerobically condition; that’s all you need because that’s what you live with. Of course later, I found out that’s not being totally fit—you can’t enjoy life to the fullest unless you combine muscle training and calisthenics with aerobic conditioning, then you have a super fit-type person.

So, yes there’s been some major changes over the years as people accused me back in the 1980s that I change recommendations to sell books. That made me nauseous when I heard that. I change my recommendations based on solid scientific facts.

That’s why the established research institute before I saw my first patient in the clinic back in 1970, I had a database. I can prove what I’ve been saying over the years that exercise is medicine, that exercise does prolong life. Now, with 800 publications over the last 45 years, we have proved that fact.

Now this real institute here in Dallas has been recognized as the leading institute in the world and there’s the question of, how does the role of exercise play in the practice of medicine? Just in December in The Wall Street Journal they had a big article with a headline that says, “Jog and call me in the morning.” There was a picture of a physician with a stethoscope around his head. It says, all that level of fitness is becoming a vital sign along with hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes; all these various things that level of fitness is becoming a new vital sign. Physicians must be taught how to do test laboratories to include that, because its such an important factor in longevity.

Johnson: You know the chairman of the National Football Federation is Archie Manning and he says, “Our entire nation owes Dr. Cooper our deepest gratitude.” We agree and we en route those sentiments and congratulations, Dr. Cooper.

Cooper: I appreciate that. He’s a patient and a wonderful friend and he will be there tomorrow night.