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Dr. Kenneth Cooper got a nation moving through aerobics

More than 40 years ago, his book touted a new type of exercise.

March 30, 2009|Deborah Netburn

Today's gym goers can be found singing on their stationary bikes during Cycle Karaoke, shaking their butts at Yoga Booty Ballet, sweating through a high-energy yoga flow class and learning the dance moves to "Legally Blonde." They're moving in different ways with different rhythms, but they're all trying to get the heart rate up in an interesting, engaging way.

In short, they're doing aerobics.

More than 40 years after Dr. Kenneth Cooper released the book "Aerobics," the form of exercise hasn't died. It's just morphed with the times, giving itself new names and shedding the leg warmers and the headbands.

Cooper, then a young Air Force physician, invented the word "aerobics" for his 1968 book of the same name -- tacking an S onto the medical adjective "aerobic" as a way to describe the new kind of exercise he was touting. In the book, he defined aerobic exercises as those that "demand oxygen without producing an intolerable oxygen debt, so that they can be sustained for a long period of time."

He didn't particularly like the word, and he didn't want it to be the title of his book. "The publisher thought we should call the book 'Aerobics.' I disagreed," he said recently from his office at the Cooper Institute in Texas where, at 77, he still sees patients, including former President George W. Bush. " 'People can't pronounce it, they can't spell it, they won't remember it,' " he recalled contending. "But look what has happened in the past 40 years."

Americans now know -- whether or not they choose to use such knowledge -- that aerobic exercise, getting the heart working for sustained periods of time, is to their benefit. In the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week for most adults. Doctors routinely encourage their patients to exercise aerobically to keep their heart healthy. And classes of all forms and stripes try to push people -- if not to their limit -- at least enough to make them sweat for extended periods. Even those likely to give up their fitness goals after a jog or two buy heart-rate monitors to ensure they're wringing the most cardiovascular benefit possible from their workouts.

The percentage of Americans working out aerobically increased steadily from 24% in 1968 (when Cooper's book came out) to 59% in 1984, according to Gallup Polls. (It has since shrunk: A 2006 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 31% of Americans exercise aerobically.)

"The book had a huge impact," said Dr. Russell Pate, an exercise science professor at the University of South Carolina. "Part of that was because it was visionary and insightful, but part of it was that it came along at a time when the population was becoming aware that its inactivity was becoming problematic."

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Air Force fitness

Cooper wrote his book after spending a decade working with the Air Force, studying the effects of exercise and designing a fitness program for pilots and astronauts.

In the book he argues that aerobic exercise is the best way to condition the body -- better than (then-popular) calisthenics, weight lifting or better anaerobic exercise such as sprints and drills. He wrote that aerobic exercise like jogging or swimming, done frequently and with enough duration, "improves the overall condition of the body especially its most important parts, the lungs, the heart, the blood vessels, the body tissue, building a bulwark against many forms of illness and disease."

Before Cooper's book, aerobic exercise was the domain of professional athletes; average people were rarely encouraged to get their heart rates up.

"I remember times when the only people we ever studied were athletes because the only people exercising were athletes," said Walter Thompson, a professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University.

For women, sweating was considered unladylike; for men over 40, it was considered dangerous.

"My colleagues back in the '50s and '60s were very much afraid of exercise in people over 40 years of age," Cooper said. "I would see titles in newspapers that would say, 'The streets are going to be dead of joggers if more Americans follow Cooper.' "

Of course, the opposite happened. "Ken Cooper was, if not the pioneer, one of the pioneers of therapeutic exercise," Thompson said.

After "Aerobics," Cooper published "The New Aerobics" in 1972 and worked with his wife to put out "Aerobics for Women" in 1977.

These were relatively straightforward exercise-for-exercise's-sake books. They emphasized the importance of physical activities such as jogging, cycling and skiing. The innovation that defined aerobics' appeal -- setting heart-pounding movements to music -- came from Jacki Sorenson, a former cheerleader at UCLA.

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