Dr. Kenneth Cooper. photography by Nick Prendergast

Q&A With Dr. Kenneth Cooper

He invented aerobics, and his name means “jogging” in Brazil. Now his Cooper Aerobics celebrates 40 years.

Q: You were a runner in high school and college. But at 29, while in the Air Force, you gained about 40 pounds. How did you go from being overweight to the man who created a new exercise?

A: The thing that changed my career was I was water skiing on Lake Texoma. Halfway through, my heart started beating out of my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack, but the doctor said I was just out of shape. That shot me back. I lost the weight within a year. I ran my first marathon. I wanted to pursue my career in aerospace medicine, so I went to Harvard. I became very interested in this concept of exercise and how it relates to medicine. I changed my whole attitude.

Q: You were assigned to NASA, where you developed preflight conditioning and in-flight anti-deconditioning for astronauts. You took this information and wrote Aerobics. How did you come up with the title?

A: I took the adjective “aerobic,” added an “s,” and made it a noun. I titled a chapter “Aerobics,” and sent it off to the publisher. The publisher thought since isometrics was popular, then aerobics would be popular. I said, “No way. People can’t pronounce it. They can’t spell it. They can’t remember it.” They were right. I was wrong.

Q: It took awhile to get the Air Force to sign off on it. How did you finally get it approved?

A: I finished the manuscript while still in the Air Force, but it sat on Air Force chief of staff General John McConnell’s desk for six weeks. I wanted to get it out. So I said, “If you’re afraid I’m going to get money for this project that I shouldn’t, I will donate all my royalties to the Air Force.” He was shocked. He didn’t take me up on my offer, but he did sign off on the book.

Q: How did jogging become known as Coopering in Brazil?

A: In 1968, the trainer for the Brazilian World Cup soccer team heard my presentation. He realized the need for conditioning players in preparation for the World Cup in Mexico City in 1970. So I started working with them. I said, “If you follow my concepts, you’ll see a reduction of injuries, you’ll play better in the second half of the game, you’ll play better in the later games of the season.” They beat Italy with a score of 4-1 in the final. They wiped out the competition in the second half. So overnight, I became very popular in Brazil.

Q: The Cooper Institute received its state charter in July 1970, and you had your first patient in December. You’re 79 now. What do the next 40 years look like?

A: My son will be taking over. Until then, there are three things I want to do: I want to try to emphasize preventive medicine, control healthcare costs of companies, and focus on the health of kids.

Q: When you first published Aerobics, many in the medical profession were against it. Was there ever anyone you wanted to go back to and say, “I told you so?”

A: Horrible Herman Hellerstein. He was on my back all the time. We were sharing the platform at some meeting. Before the audience, he said, “I want you to know that the only benefit of the aerobics program would be if you put that little book in your rear pocket, and it may cushion the fall when you die.” A few years after that, we were at a panel. There were two guys against exercise and two guys in favor of exercise. And the two of us in favor were Herman Hellerstein and myself. We were walking out, and he said, “You know, Ken, you’re right. And I’m glad we’re back together.” So Herman Hellerstein was my archenemy and then became one of my strongest supporters after that. But, no, I’ve never said I told you so.


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