In the early 1960s, when the great Space Race was being fueled by the escalating Cold War, a former track and basketball star from Oklahoma envisioned himself soaring through the Milky Way.

This tall, lanky fellow was an Army doctor, but the lure of space flight led him to transfer to the Air Force. He became certified in aerospace medicine. Then he developed training programs for astronauts – some for before they took off, others to help them remain in shape while floating weightlessly in outer space. All along, his sights were set on becoming among a select group of “science astronauts.”

Imagine how different life on Earth would be today if Kenneth Cooper, MD, MPH, hadn’t shifted gears.

Cooper actually was still in the Air Force when he published “Aerobics,” a book that did as much for the health of Americans as the Apollo 11 lunar landing did for the aerospace industry. Cooper’s book, by the way, came out first – more than a year before Neil Armstrong planted the U.S. flag on the moon.

That book is now available in more than 40 languages. Cooper has spoken in more than 50 countries, and written 18 more books. He is the “Father of Aerobics” and a big reason why the number of runners in the United States spiked from 100,000 when his book came out to 34 million in 1984.

Through his Cooper Aerobic Center, which opened in 1970 and continues to thrive, he’s improved the lives of countless patients, including former President George W. Bush. His influence is sure to continue for many generations – U.S. public schools this year replaced the Presidential Physical Fitness Test with Presidential Youth Fitness Program, which uses the FitnessGram developed by his Cooper Institute in 1982.

Cooper also has long been a supporter of the American Heart Association. He founded the Dallas Heart Walk, which has grown into the organization’s top annual fundraiser, drawing more than $5 million this year. At last year’s Scientific Sessions, he received the Chairman’s Award, which recognizes a volunteer who has significantly advanced the association’s strategic goals. And this year he’s taking center stage again Monday afternoon as the keynote speaker for the Global Congress on Physical Activity.

First patient: Himself

A cardiac event is often a life-changing experience. For Cooper, a bout with arrhythmia during a water skiing trip in 1960 proved monumental.

From his playing weight of 168, Cooper had ballooned to 204, packing on the pounds through the stress of medical school and the start of his career. He ate the wrong things and didn’t exercise.

“Obesity is the most common manifestation of stress. It happened to me,” he said. “But I lost the weight within six months. There was no organized program. For me, it was just cutting calories and exercising. When I lost all that weight, a lot of my problems disappeared – hypertension, prediabetic, no energy, no pep. That changed my career.”

Having proven the benefits of preventive medicine and wellness in the military, he was ready to shift to the private sector.

The private sector, however, wasn’t ready for him.

When he opened his clinic in Dallas, naysayers told him, “You can’t limit your practice to taking care of healthy people. People only want to see their physicians when they’re sick.” And those were the kind ones. Others turned him in to the local medical society’s board of censors.

“They thought I was going to kill people by putting them on treadmills for stress testing,” Cooper said. “I’d been doing it in the Air Force for 10 years!”

The big picture turned out more clearly. Baby Boomers became exercisers, triggering a fitness craze that produced what he calls “the glory years of health in America.” As Boomers have aged, and future generations have made fitness a lower priority, health had spiraled in the wrong direction. It’s been 17 years since the Surgeon General recommended 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week, and the statistics show that most Americans aren’t doing it.

“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,” Cooper said. “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!”

Still going strong

At 82, Cooper is still full of pep.

“You can ask my staff – I’m the first person here in the morning and the last to leave,” he said. “I work out every day before I go home. I’ve controlled my stress that way.”

He gave up jogging eight years ago after breaking a leg while skiing. So he walks two miles over a half hour – an average of 15 minutes per mile – five days per week.

“That’s pretty fast for an old man,” he said, grinning again.

Cooper still gives lectures and is involved in all sorts of research projects, many relying on the extensive repository of data his organization has collected over the last 40-plus years. His base is growing, too, having opened a location in a Dallas suburb and eyeing clinics in Asia and Europe.

“It sure has been exciting,” he said, smiling.

What he’s most proud of, though, is the paradigm shift in the way people view physical activity. While not enough Americans are heeding his prescription of being more active, at least everyone knows they should.

“We’ve gone from exercise being dangerous to exercise being mandatory,” he said. “That’s extreme. And it all started here.”

Photo courtesy of Cooper Aerobics