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30 Years of Sweat

Talk about revolution. Today, working out is as much a part of many people's lives as eating. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics, should get much of the credit.


Look around.

The treadmills. The jogging trails. The exercise tapes, bicycles and spandex shorts.

The gym memberships. The Air Nikes. Nautilus. Heavyhands. The 10K races and protein shakes.

It's all very commonplace now--a $3-billion exercise industry. But it wasn't always this way.

Much of America's fitness revolution can be traced back to 1968 and the frustration of a lieutenant colonel at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

It began in green fatigues and a shower of U.S. military sweat when that drop-dead serious, if slightly maniacal, flight surgeon decided to test his notion that intense cardiovascular exercise might help people overcome high blood pressure, fatigue and flabbiness.

One day, enchanted by his finding that vigorous exercise appeared to improve health dramatically, Kenneth Cooper thumbed through a dictionary and hunted for a word to describe the phenomenon.


Hmmm, this might do.


Well, he hated the sound of it. But--ever the scientist--the definition fit: "a microorganism that can live and grow only where free oxygen is present."

He would call his exercise program "aerobics."

Picking up a pen, Cooper described his research on aerobics in a slim soft-cover book that was sold via coupons affixed to tubs of margarine. But Reader's Digest came upon the little book and published an excerpt under the title, "How to Feel Fit at Any Age."

And so Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the staid, God-fearing, brilliant son of a strict, Baptist dentist found himself in a most unlikely place: ground zero of the aerobic fitness revolution.

"What he did was evoke an enthusiasm to exercise in the public," says Dr. Gerald Fletcher, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and an American Heart Assn. spokesman. "He was one of the few people who was able to catch the eye of the public."


If there is a theme to Cooper's 30-year career, it's that he's always out in front of the curve--even if he's sometimes hanging by a thread on a point of controversy.

And yet, whatever it is that he's proclaiming--whether it's the value of treadmill stress tests or the benefits of antioxidant supplements--he's usually right.

His commercial and personal success, which he readily owns up to with a strong sense of pride, is softened by the fact that Cooper has done much good for so many people--not to mention those who have grown rich from his ideas. The personal trainers, aerobics queens and exercise equipment manufacturers must sing his praises while staring at their profit margins.

"Ken has spawned so many millionaires," proclaims Cooper's spitfire of a wife, Millie, a Libby Dole look-alike.

Cooper, too, is now a rich man. He has written 14 books. He owns his stately 30-acre, five-building fitness compound in north Dallas. And, in November, he signed papers to become a partner in the construction of a $19-million fitness complex in Vero Beach, Fla., which will become the second Cooper clinic / fitness center in the United States.

Best of all, his 27-year-old son, Tyler, has seen the light. The mild-mannered, former ski instructor will hit medical school in the fall, giving his 66-year-old father a possible retirement date of sometime around 2007.

This news came during an interview in Cooper's office one splendid day in October at the Cooper Clinic.

"Ken, I hate to interrupt, but you just have to see this," gushed Millie as she and Tyler burst into Cooper's expansive, oak-paneled office. She was waving Tyler's medical school entrance exam score of a respectable 29.

"Do you believe it, Ken? Twenty-nine!" says Millie, as Tyler stands by quietly, smiling.

"Great!" says Cooper, rising to greet them. "This is a surprise. Boy! Congratulations, son! I'm as proud as you are. That is great news! Twenty-nine! Let me see that. I don't believe it."

It is a lovely moment that seems too private to be shared with outsiders. But Cooper is candid about his desire to see his son find his place in the world. (His daughter, Berkley, 32, is married and works with disabled children at a Dallas hospital.)

"Most medical schools wouldn't consider anyone with a score under 28," says Cooper after Millie and Tyler depart. He grins, the most emotion--positive or negative--he is ever likely to show.

"That pretty much guarantees he'll get into medical school. I think we could have gotten him in anyway. But better to let him get in on his own."

In addition to their corporate success, the Coopers seem like sure-handed parents. Tyler was not forced into his future.

"I had no desire to go to medical school. I majored in business," says Tyler, who graduated from Baylor in 1994.

"We never, once, ever, said one word to Tyler about going to medical school," confirms Millie. "He didn't take a single science course in college!"

(One gets the distinct feeling that this fact, nevertheless, made Mom's and Dad's hair stand on end.)

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