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HEALTH MR. AEROBICS

The fitness mission of Dr. Ken Cooper.
By Lee Ballard |

THE PINK BRICK mansion is a bit overwhelming for its neighborhood: countless rooms covering 2 1/2 acres of the 23-acre estate, flawless landscaping, even a small lake. And the people who live there seem to spend a lot of time running around the yard. But a passer-by would certainly nod and conclude that the guy who owns the place has arrived in the world.

The owner (and he owns it personally) is Kenneth Hardy Cooper, B.S., M.D., M.P.H., D.H.L., D.S.-the man who brought us jogging.

At age 51, Ken Cooper is a world-class hero. Last May The London Times included him among 74 of “The Great” of the past 20 years: “The drop in death from heart disease in America by 14 percent in the Seventies is commonly credited to Cooper,” the Times said. The Japanese asked him to endorse a line of sportswear. In Brazil, where they apparently had trouble translating the word “aerobics” into Portuguese, jogging is called “doing your Cooper.” He lectures (for huge honorariums) at medical schools and conferences in Europe and consults at the Mayo Clinic and at UCLA. His fifth book, out this fall, got him advances that put him in a league with James Michener. He is a man who has, in the words of his wife, Millie, “lived his dream.”

But arrived? Hardly. Cooper drives himself as much today as he ever did, maybe more. You see, Ken Cooper has only now begun to realize his real objectives in life.

Cooper is by genetics an athlete and by training a physician – but by choice, he is a missionary. There are two things he still strains to accomplish -the same goals he had when his ultraconservative yet radical-thinking father packed him off to medical school 30 years ago: He wants to revolutionize the practice of medicine, and he wants to spread the Christian gospel. In a sense, all the celebrity hoopla that swirls around him daily is nothing but a warm-up for the real race. He speaks of it all as a “platform” from which his message is now being heard. He speaks of The Aerobics Center, his marvelous complex of buildings and grounds on Preston Road, as the place “where we change the welfare of mankind, where we redirect the field of medicine.”

To evaluate the extreme, seemingly arrogant statements that regularly spice his declarations, you have to understand two things about Ken Cooper: (1) He is supremely certain that his view of health and medicine -a concept he calls “wellness” – is the right approach; and (2) he is a master at making things happen. Whatever he says, folks take him seriously.

The Aerobics Center is an example. Three entities are housed there: The Cooper Clinic, the Institute for Aerobics Research and the Aerobics Activity Center. Of these, the 2,500-member Activity Center, one of the finest health clubs in America, is by far the most visible. That’s where all those plodding joggers on the grounds come from. Next in notoriety comes the clinic, where seven member doctors dispense Cooper-style medicine to private patients. And last, there’s the Research Institute on the second floor, not obvious at all, away from the public eye.

But in Cooper’s economy, the order of importance is exactly reversed. In his means-to-an-end thinking, the institute is the most important of the three. The other two exist primarily to provide it with data and funds.

“When we came here in 1970,” he says with a rare look of nostalgia, “I told our staff [then three people] about my dream – that people from all over the world would come to Dallas because of our expertise, our knowledge. I told them that we were going to make a major contribution to the field of medicine. But to do this, I knew that we had to have a very solid, sound research program. So in early 1971, we established the Research Institute.”

Since then, everyone who has passed through the clinic or stepped foot in the facilities of the Activity Center has contributed data to Cooper’s dream.

“The major goal of our health club,” he says, “is to provide statistics, numbers, data for our Research Institute, so that we can continue the process we have started of trying to revolutionize the field of medicine away from disease orientation to the prevention of disease. And at the clinic, we store all patient data in the institute’s computers and analyze it on a regular basis. We have over 100,000 man years of follow-up on our patients. We can document aging and lack of aging in response to our wellness-type programs; we can look at cholesterol levels, for example, and predict coronary disease; we can look at deaths that have occurred. And every time anybody swims or plays basketball or runs on the tracks or plays racquetball or logs miles on the stationary cycle, everything is put into the computer, thus quantifying physical activity like never before in history. In one study on men 40 to 49 years of age, we had data on over 5,500 men. Nobody else has anything like that. It’s awesome the kind of data we’re collecting.”

Additionally, some of the profits of the clinic and Activity Center will make up one-third of the funds for the Research Institute’s $1.5 million budget this year. So, as the dominant shareholder in the clinic and the outright owner of the Activity Center, Cooper is not leaving the fate of his dream to chance; he is backing it with personal bucks. (He also spends a high percentage of his time raising funds for the institute and is, year by year, its largest individual donor.)

“We are establishing here what I think is going to be the future of medicine,” says Cooper. This has been his long-range goal since childhood.



WILLIAM HARDY Cooper, Ken’s father, was a frustrated Oklahoma dentist specializing in peridontal disease-frustrated because he saw that surgery, the standard procedure in treating pyorrhea, left much to be desired as a remedy. What succeeded, he observed, was a change in diet. And furthermore, he observed that when his patients changed their dietary habits, other aspects of their physical condition, such as arthritis and high blood pressure, improved too. Ken grew up with world-famous nutritionists as dinner guests. So it should have surprised no one when he told the interview committee at the University of Oklahoma medical school, “I want to help people retain their good health.”

But just as his father before him had been harassed and abused by the medical profession, so was he. The establishment, oriented as it was to the treatment of acute disease, could not see Cooper’s emphasis on preventative medicine.

His first book, Aerobics, in 1968, was dismissed as the ramblings of an obscure Air Force doctor and criticized for everything from its writing style (too colloquial for a doctor) to outright quackery.

In the book, he used data from his work with Air Force personnel to propound the concept that exercise, done properly, will improve health. Some of the medical community thought that Cooper was overstating his case, and so aerobics was cubby-holed with fads such as pulling teeth and taking out tonsils.

But the book exploded on the world, attracting millions upon millions of puffing, panting converts to aerobics and to Cooper. He was an overnight superstar.

The Air Force’s response, however, was to shunt him off to be a hospital administrator; and by 1970, Cooper had resigned and was setting up shop in Dallas.

“I understand the opposition of the medical community,” Cooper says. “In my early years I was very nearly overwhelmed myself by the problems of disease. Physicians just don’t have time to think about anything else. The horse is out, and you’ve got to go find him. There’s no time to think about how to keep him from getting out next time. And besides, as Ashley Montagu put it in The New York Times in 1975, ’Doctors, on the whole, are uninterested in health since their training is focused almost entirely on disease, and there is very little profit in health.’ “

At least that’s what everyone thought.



THE IDEA that Cooper brought with him to Dallas was what he calls “a whole new concept of medicine, one that concentrates on keeping people healthy – because it’s a lot cheaper and more effective to maintain good health than it is to regain it once it’s lost. Hopefully, we will progress to the level of the ancient Chinese, who paid their physicians only when they kept them well!”

Cooper has labeled himself and his colleagues as Preventive Medicine Specialists (PMS), a sort of super family physician. Their practice is not, as with most doctors, in curing their clients’ ills; their goal is to work with their patients to change their lifestyles in healthier directions.

The Cooper Clinic procedure runs like this: a half hour of recording patient history, an extremely comprehensive physical examination and various stress tests and strength tests. Then, physician and patient work out a plan of action. This might include weight loss, change in diet, a prescription of exercise, a stop-smoking or reduce-alcohol-and-drugs program, stress management, proper schedule of rest -all the elements contained in Cooper’s latest book, The Aerobics Program for Total Well-Being, along with personal counseling. Cooper has specialists in most of these areas on his staff.

On subsequent visits, the patients are asked two questions: (1) How many days did you miss from work because of illness during the past year? and (2) How many times did you see a physician for any reason during the past year?

The result? The bottom drops out, Cooper says. “They commonly reply, ’I haven’t seen my doctor in four years; 1 haven’t been sick.’ So the PMS is becoming the primary-care physician. And I believe that’s the way it should be. The primary purpose of medicine, I believe, is preventing disease, not curing it after the fact.”

In Cooper’s model, the PMS is a highly qualified individual, skilled enough in evaluation and diagnosis to recognize that the patient has a particular problem and then to refer him to an acute disease physician. “What has happened,” Cooper says, “is that our clinic has become the largest source of patient referrals of any clinic in Dallas.”

In the beginning, his gloom-bearing counselors said that no healthy person would pay a doctor. Cooper responded with an attitude that is incredibly consumer-oriented for a medical doctor: “We determined that when patients come to us when they are well, we must provide them with such a good result from our recommendations that they can hardly wait to come back.” The clinic’s return rate is about 75 percent.

One key factor is time. If a PMS is going to be effective, he must be prepared to spend time with his patient. Cooper describes one recent incident: “1 spent two hours with a man from San Francisco, just talking. It fouled up my whole day, but the man needed help. No physician had ever taken the time to sit down and talk with him, and I could help him.” (And, not incidentally, one of the main sources for the other two-thirds of the Research Institute’s budget is contributions from patients.)

In the beginning of his Dallas practice, this approach was, Cooper says, “very foreign to the medical community and totally unacceptable. But now the medical community has become very excited. I have seen some physicians in Dallas go full circle. Once they informed their patients that if they came to our clinic, they were to take their records with them because they didn’t want to see them again. Now they are referring patients to us.”

This has been the pattern across America. Cooper has gone from snake oil peddler to seer. His advice is sought in the highest councils of medicine -and his approach is being duplicated in clinics across the land.

“One factor in our new acceptance,” he says, “has, of course, been the success we’ve seen here at the Aerobics Center, both financially and in the weight of our data. Another factor is the financial crisis in hospitals across the country due to a lack of patients. As an example, a group of physicians from Kansas City was here in September to get advice on installing a wellness program in their hospital. But by far the most potent force has been patient demand. We’re in a wellness boom -and historically, major changes in the practice of medicine in this country have not been led by the physician as much as they have been forced by the people. What I’m trying to do is to force the medical profession to change its direction by example, not by coercion -but patients are helping.”

To Cooper, however, this is only Act One. And he has a script that will take him to the final curtain. The main players in his scenario are the people who influence others, those at the top of the pyramid. It is with these that Cooper consciously invests his time.

When a top corporate executive wants to establish a wellness program for his company, Cooper and his colleagues serve as consultants in setting up the needed three phases: facilities, leadership and the proper program. “What is the best way to communicate information to the employees of a corporation?” he asks. “Our theory is get top management involved – like David Kearns at Xerox -and the rest will follow.” (Another heavy source of funding for the Research Institute is corporate grants.)

Next February, Cooper will be helping the commander at Fort Hood set up a program of total fitness that involves overweight programs, various exercise programs and competitions -even the replacement of snack foods with health foods.

That we were asked to do this was not happenstance,” Cooper says. “I have been speaking at the National Defense University [NDU] in Washington for 12 years -to all those who will eventually make general or admiral or reach top State Department status. And then four years ago, I helped them install a separate division for physical conditioning at the NDU itself with a qualified staff. Now all these potential generals and top state officials are being exposed to our concepts by personal participation. An irony is that they’ve named the trophy given to the winner of a certain race at the NDU the Kenneth H. Cooper Award -after a former lieutenant colonel who was, at best, controversial when he was in the Air Force!”

Similar reasoning led Cooper to propose a pilot program to the Dallas Independent School District: He wanted teachers -who influence children and their parents -to participate in wellness.

In the much-publicized six-month study earlier this year, 130 teachers (30 in a control group) were given the Cooper Clinic program of wellness. Linus Wright later told Cooper that it was the most remarkable study he had seen in his 34 years in education. Morale increased, attitudes changed and absenteeism decreased by an average of two days per teacher per semester. Now, Cooper says, more than 3,500 DISD teachers are paying $10 a month to participate.

“My goal in life,” Cooper says, “is to see a much healthier America -and I think we’re beginning to see this.”

A beginning of success is one of the two areas of his ambition: the physical. He is working on the other half: the spiritual. “1 believe that the reason the Lord has allowed me to have the acceptance I’ve had around the world in the physical field is so that I can use my talents effectively in spiritual areas.”

He stands with Billy Graham in his crusades. He chains the Aerobics Center’s gates on Sunday. He travels on behalf of Southern Baptist missions. Last September, he led a Baptist-sponsored run in Brazil, where tens of thousands of Brazilians took off to “Cooper with Cooper” on a 10-kilometer course.

Cooper tries to make his faith practical. He says that one reason he personally owns the Aerobics Center property is so he can be generous when he wants to be, without having to answer to partners or to a board of directors. He keeps prices within reach of the average person, and he likes his books to be in paperback and in common language so that the masses will profit from them. He is concerned that the world’s poor, who cannot afford disease-oriented medicine, gain benefit from pre-ventative medicine.

He steadfastly refuses to endorse commercial products and to franchise the Aerobics Center (“That’s where the money is”) because he worries that his flock, which trusts him implicitly, will be misled in some way. He is concerned about the loose way the word “aerobics” (which he coined in 1968) is being used, so he has engaged lawyers to fight any immoral enterprise that hides behind the name.

He feels an “awesome responsibility that people are accepting my recommendations and implementing them in their personal lives.” He is thus driven harder into research that will make exercise as “safe and effective as possible.”

And his brand of medicine is caring medicine. His wife, Millie, tells of letters from patients -like the one from a Dallas man who wrote, “I’m alone, a widower. You don’t know what it means to me to know that there’s somebody who cares about my health. My examination with you was a caring experience.”

Big offers have come (one recently from Canadian interests) to buy the Aerobics Center. But, as Millie tells it, “if you could see the letters and the responses of people all over town, who talk to Ken about what’s happening in their lives, then you’d understand why we’ll never sell this place.”