The Diet Detective: Q&A With the Founder of Aerobic Fitness, Kenneth Cooper

Dr. Kenneth Cooper coined the term "aerobics" more than 40 years ago. Photo Credit: Marc Robins

While water-skiing at age 29, Kenneth Cooper, M.D., M.P.H., thought he was having a heart attack. At the hospital, his doctor told him he was simply out of shape, having gained 40 pounds and become inactive due to the stress of medical school.

Dr. Cooper lost the weight and started to exercise. His health scare triggered not only his first book, the 1968 best seller Aerobics, but also a fitness revolution. He has now written 19 books, which have been translated into 41 languages with more than 30 million copies sold.

Cooper, now 76 years old, is a former Air Force physician and founder of the world-famous Cooper Institute in Dallas.

Diet Detective: How did you discover the impact of cardio fitness on the body?

Dr. Cooper: One of my responsibilities as an Air Force flight surgeon was to develop a conditioning program to be used by NASA to prepare astronauts for prolonged weightlessness in space. Three important questions had to be answered. What type of exercise is most important? How can you compare aerobic exercises? How much is enough?

The answer to the first question is that only aerobic or endurance-type exercise has the potential to provide cardiovascular conditioning.

The answer to the second question, how to compare aerobic exercises such as walking, running, cycling and swimming, was to develop an aerobics points system based upon the duration and intensity of various activities. There are 41 exercises that qualified as being aerobic and could be awarded aerobic points. The top five are cross-country skiing, swimming, jogging/running, cycling and walking.

Running 1 mile in eight minutes was worth five points, but walking 1 mile in 18 minutes was worth only one point. If you ran 3 miles in less than 24 minutes, it was worth 17 points, since endurance points were added.

The final question was, in effect, how many points per week were necessary. The answer was 30 for men and 28 for women in order to see a significant improvement in the body's maximal oxygen consumption, which is the best way to measure endurance fitness.

Diet Detective: When you lost those 40 pounds by exercising, did you notice anything else happening to your body?

Dr. Cooper: My feelings of lethargy, easy fatigability, early hypertension and lack of an overall feeling of well-being disappeared.

Diet Detective: You are credited with coining the term "aerobics." How did you come up with that?

Dr. Cooper:
While preparing the manuscript of my first book, Aerobics. From my medical school days, I knew that the word aerobic means "living in oxygen," and since the goal of my program was to improve the body's capacity to utilize oxygen, I took the adjective aerobic, added an "s" to it, and made it a noun.

I titled the chapter on endurance exercises "Aerobics" and sent the manuscript off to the publisher in New York. He thought that was unique and said, "Let's call the book Aerobics."

I disagreed, saying people won't be able to pronounce it, they can't spell it, they won't remember it, but all I can say is that after 40 years he was right and I was wrong.

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