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A Prescription From the 'Father of Aerobics' -- Exercise Is Medicine

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The late 1960s were a wild time in our nation. Change was everywhere. And when the Beatles first sang, "You say you want a revolution," Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper already had begun revolutionizing health and fitness in the United States and, quite soon, the entire world.

His landmark book Aerobics came out in 1968, and Baby Boomers quickly heeded his call to get moving. Whether they were walking, running or finding other ways to get their hearts pumping, an entire generation of Americans made exercise an important part of their daily routine.

Stop and think about that cultural shift. Up to then, working out was not something that was widely recognized as a way of improving your health. Now, regardless of how often you step into a gym, you at least know it's a good idea, thanks in large part to Dr. Cooper's role in changing the national mindset.

Now 82, Dr. Cooper remains vibrant and energetic. At his ever-expanding Cooper Clinic in Dallas, he still sees patients, including former President George W. Bush, still lectures all over the world and, of course, he's still an authority on the field he helped create.

On Nov. 18, Dr. Cooper -- the "father of aerobics" -- will deliver the keynote address at the Global Congress of Physical Activity. That event is part of a much larger event, the American Heart Association's annual Scientific Sessions. Within the medical community, this conference is known as the premier gathering of cardiovascular thought in the United States, bringing together more than 18,000 experts from around the world.

Before Dr. Cooper addresses his peers, I'm honored to turn this platform over to him to discuss the past, present and future of fitness.

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2013-11-07-Dr_Coopercroppedsquare.jpg When I was in medical school in the 1950s, the saying was, "There's no profit in health, the profit is in disease."

Exercise was not considered part of medicine. It was not even recommended for anyone over 40! If you had a heart attack, you were told to lie flat on your back in bed for six weeks; if you lived in a two-story house, you were told to move to a one-story house because you should no longer walk up and down a flight of stairs.

The changes since then have been tremendous. People over 40 are breaking four-minute miles. Heart attack survivors are running marathons. All of that changed because of the undeniable research that proved that exercise is medicine.

Let me back up and tell you a story about a guy who let his health slip away.

He was a basketball and track star in high school. He went to college on a track scholarship. Eventually, academics took priority over athletics. He stopped exercising and started gaining weight. Then he went into the real world. His stress levels went up and so did his weight. He was carrying about 40 pounds more than in his playing days when he went water skiing. His heart didn't like that. It fluttered as if he was having a heart attack.

I was only 29, and it changed my life.

The first change was physical. I cut calories and started exercising -- running, mostly. I dropped from 204 pounds to 168 within six months. I ran my first marathon soon after. While losing the pounds, I also lost diagnoses of high blood pressure and prediabetes. I had more energy, more pep.

The next change involved my career. It was clear to me that there was a strong connection between exercise and good health. I was in the Air Force, trying to become a "science astronaut" -- a scientist who goes into space -- and I began studying preventive medicine. Then I put the areas together. I began studying exactly how much exercise was enough so these guys and gals in the Air Force could beat the physical standards. We ended up creating the 12-minute test, which is quite simply a measurement of how far someone can walk, jog or run for 12 minutes. The distance provides a barometer of aerobic capacity. It was a big part of Aerobics, and it's still a widely used standard.

When my book came out, I really stirred up a firestorm. Medical colleagues were against the idea of wellness. I'd see things like, "The streets are going to be filled with dead joggers if Americans listen to Cooper." Ha!

We went from 100,000 joggers in the U.S. in 1968 to 34 million in 1984. Baby Boomers started controlling their weight, their blood pressure, their stress -- all these things we know are coronary risk factors. And what happened? Heart disease dropped 48 percent. Life expectancy went up by six years.

Those were the glory years of health in America.

Now, we're facing a crisis. Since 1990, we've had the obesity epidemic, stress is going up, blood pressure is up and much more. There are many theories on why this happened. I think you had people getting older and burned out on exercise. They also were having musculoskeletal problems. Another part of this is that while those Baby Boomers were making exercise part of their lives, their kids didn't follow suit.

In 1996, the Surgeon General picked up on this reversal, and put out a report that said what I've been pushing for decades: If Americans would just get 30 minutes of activity most days of the week, it would have a dramatic effect.

Let's frame it another way.

For many years, I've put people into five health categories, ranking them from very poor to excellent. Research constantly shows that major gains can be made by moving up just one category, even if it's just from very poor to poor. Being active 30 minutes a day can be a huge step toward moving up.

Getting your heart pumping is also the best way to fight rising healthcare costs. The cheapest medicine on earth is exercise. If we can get the 50 million Americans who are totally inactive today to move up just one category, think of the dramatic effect that would have. Just by avoiding inactivity!

Childhood obesity is another problem gripping our country. I expect to soon be making a difference in that area. This school year is the first that the Presidential Physical Fitness Test in public schools nationwide is being replaced by the Presidential Youth Fitness Program, which uses the FitnessGram developed by my Cooper Institute in 1982. This program measures students' fitness using the Cooper Institute's five targets: aerobic capacity, body composition, flexibility, muscle strength and muscular endurance.

Worksite wellness programs are another wonderful area of opportunity. Studies show that for every $1 companies invest in improving the health of their employees, they get a $6 return -- half from reduced medical spending, half from reduced absenteeism. It makes sense. A healthy employee is more likely to be a happy, productive employee.

So there are some answers to the health challenges facing our country. But the truth is, what worked in 1968 works today, and will work tomorrow and the next day. Just remember that exercise is medicine, and my prescription for you is simple: Avoid inactivity!

One last thing I'd like to give you is a four-step plan that I recommend to all my patients:

  1. Evaluation.. Data drives decision. You've got to know your cholesterol, your fasting blood sugar, your body-mass index -- all the basic numbers that provide a snapshot of your health.
  2. Education and motivation. You've got to understand the numbers and realize how you can change them.
  3. Recommendations. You've got to learn how to do things like lose weight and quit smoking, and hopefully your physician can help.
  4. Re-evaluate. If you're older or have certain conditions, it could be every three months. Maybe it's every year. But just make sure you are staying on top of your health.

Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH, is founder and chairman of Cooper Aerobics, and widely known as the "Father of Aerobics"

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