Breakthrough Aerobics Movement Celebrates 40th Anniversary
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Famed "Father of Aerobics" Dr. Kenneth Cooper Credited with Launching Worldwide Fitness Movement Among Adults, Turns Attention to Children
Aerobics. For four decades, it has been a word associated with different forms of exercise from the jogging craze to dancing in leotards, home exercise videos to packed group classes. But for one man, aerobics was a journey to define physical fitness that not only changed his life, but also changed the world.
March marks the 40th anniversary of the 1968 release of Aerobics, a revolutionary book that introduced a new word into the English lexicon and launched a worldwide fitness movement. The invention of a young U.S. Air Force physician named Kenneth H. Cooper, Aerobics was born in a quest to quantify the amount of healthy and harmful levels of exercise. Working with NASA, he helped develop the pre-flight conditioning and in-flight anti-deconditioning programs for astronauts. Dr. Cooper also studied the impacts of physical fitness, or lack thereof, on the body, particularly in a weightless state. His interest in the subject was as much personal as professional.
"I credit two things that helped jumpstart my journey: a personal wake up call and a challenge to break new ground," says Dr. Cooper. At age 29, Dr. Cooper thought he was having a heart attack while water skiing. He learned that it was his body's reaction to a 40-pound weight gain, stress and inactivity during medical school. Later, while receiving his Master of Public Health from Harvard University, a mentor sparked a new idea. He adds, "There was no research on the topic of exercise at that time, and a close colleague suggested I should try to measure it. Those defining moments served as the launching pad for my aerobics life work."
Dr. Cooper did exactly what he set out to do: quantify exercise. He created the 1.5 mile and 12-minute mile tests to measure aerobic capacity. He also developed the Aerobics Points System – assigning points to an exercise based on type of movement, duration and level of exertion – which are outlined in Aerobics and later books including The Aerobics Program for Total Well-Being. He housed and expanded his growing body of research when he opened The Cooper Institute in 1970 in Dallas. Since then, The Cooper Institute has released more than 600 articles on the impact of physical activity on a person's quality of life and longevity.
"Generally, you should exercise 30 minutes most days of the week. But we know from research that if you walk two miles in 30 minutes, three times a week, the chances of dying from any cause is reduced by 58 percent and your life span increases by six years. Not to mention the additional benefits of reducing risk of disease, improving brain function, moods and weight loss, and lowering stress levels," adds Dr. Cooper. "You can achieve these same benefits if you walk two miles in 35 minutes four times a week or three miles in 45 minutes twice a week."
Dr. Cooper is the first to talk about how he has adapted his aerobics philosophy through the years based on research and his own experiences. In fact, he recommends increasing the amount of weight training within your overall exercise routine as you age.
"I'm the first to say that being aerobically fit is not the complete picture of overall fitness. It's a critically important piece, but you must also include weight training as you age. Otherwise, you will be aerobically fit and throw your back out while picking up a sack of groceries – something I noticed in my own body."
Dr. Cooper's program is as follows: in your 30s, do 80 percent aerobic exercise and 20 percent weight training; in your 40s, shift to 70 percent aerobics and 30 percent weights; in your 50s, 60 percent verses 40 percent; and in your 60s or older, maintain 55 percent aerobic exercise and 45 percent weight training. A full program to start and maintain a healthy lifestyle at any age, and then finish strong is outlined in Dr. Cooper's latest book Start Strong, Finish Strong – the first collaboration with his son Dr. Tyler Cooper.
After spending most of his life inspiring adults to take charge of their health, Dr. Cooper has turned his attention toward the nation's children. He started the Our Kids' Health initiative under The Cooper Institute to channel his education and legislative efforts. In 2007, Dr. Cooper was instrumental in passing Senate Bill 530 in Texas requiring moderate to vigorous physical activity during physical education class for Kindergarten through 8th grade students. The law also requires that the state's 3rd through 12th graders undergo The Cooper Institute's FITNESSGRAM® test that measures students' physical fitness to determine their overall health.
"The heath and fitness of our youth are rapidly declining. We are seeing unprecedented levels of obesity and type II diabetes among children and adolescents. If this continues, we are living in the first generation in which parents will outlive their children," says Dr. Cooper.
To combat childhood obesity, Dr. Cooper is working to get P.E. mandatory for all students in Texas and collect data from the FITNESSGRAM testing to show the direct correlation between fitness and academic performance, among other things. Dr. Cooper is also working with leaders in other states to pass similar laws and educate them on the importance of yearly physical fitness testing.
"Healthy children think and learn better," says Dr. Cooper. "The areas most profuse with blood and oxygen in the brain after exercise are areas responsible for creativity and memory. We know from existing FITNESSGRAM data that the more physically fit students are the better they perform academically and have fewer discipline problems."
At age 77, exercising five days a week and the grandfather to four young ones, Dr. Cooper is as passionate about the future of youth as he was about Aerobics for adults.
"Hopefully, improving the health of our children will be my legacy. My years of perseverance, research and efforts have led me to this point," emphasizes Dr. Cooper. "Adults have a major part to play. We need parents, educators, health professionals and entire communities to get behind this effort and make a lasting impact in the lives of children. Our next generation deserves to live a life full of happiness, not one of limitations or health problems. That starts with you and me."
About Cooper Aerobics Center
Founded in 1970 by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas serves as the headquarters for 10 health companies and a nonprofit research and education arm, The Cooper Institute. Visit ourkidshealth.org or cooperaerobics.com.