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90 Years of Exercise

In celebration of his 90th birthday this month, Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, MPH, founder and chairman of Cooper Aerobics shares how exercise shaped his passions and life’s work in various ways over the years.

My early days and exercise inspiration
I have been asked why I like to exercise many times over the years. I mainly like to exercise because it makes me feel good. Here at Cooper we have been able to prove that people who exercise regularly are less depressed, less hypochondriac, have an improved self-image and more positive attitude toward life. A person who is physically fit is different. I have had people tell me, “I thought I felt pretty good until I started exercising. I only wish I could have known how much better I would feel 20 years ago.”

My biggest encourager and motivator was my mother; she never missed a track meet or basketball game. She would go out of her way to drive to Norman or Oklahoma City for my meets. My dad rebelled against my exercise, which he feared would give me an “athletic heart.” This idea was very popular back in the 1940s. It said if you exercise too much your heart would get too large and muscular and then when you quit exercising it would convert to fat and you would die early. My father was convinced I was going to die early yet I have outlived him by 16 years—he died at age 74.

During my elementary and middle school years, I had a lot of chores I had to do at home, like working in our garden and milking our cow. We always had farms and in the summertime I would go to the farm to work with my dad. I baled hay, plowed, put up fences and did lots of manual labor on the farm. I enjoyed going out and staying at the farm. I loved the time I spent with my dad during those early years. He was a practicing dentist, but his avocation was farming. He was raised on a farm so he always wanted me to keep active on the farm.

Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper running in University of Oklahoma track meet

I exercised on my own even when I was running track at Putnam City High School in Oklahoma City. They did not have a track so I ran on the streets. I also played basketball and ran cross country in the fall. I would have my friend across the street, Buster Jackson, take my clothes to school in a paper sack while I ran to school to get my miles in. I would get cleaned up and go on to class. Then I would run home from school. I ended up making all-state basketball and won the state championship in track for the one-mile event.

Mr. Leo Mayfield was my inspiration for exercising in competition—he was the principal of the junior high school and later superintendent. He noticed that I liked to run and asked, “Why don’t you try track?” So as a ninth grader, I entered a half-mile track meet. I did well and came in second, even though I did not train for it. He recognized I had some natural ability. Even though I did not have a track coach in high school, Mr. Mayfield continued to be my coach. I won seven consecutive events and set records in most of the places I ran—all because of Leo Mayfield working with me.

Harold Keith, who was the Sports Publicity Director at the University of Oklahoma, saw the newspaper articles about me and started giving me recommendations on how to improve my performance which enabled me to win the state championship. I was undefeated in the mile run when I was a senior in high school.

The turning point
After graduating salutatorian from my high school, I received a scholarship for track to the University of Oklahoma. However, when I entered medical school I did not have time to stay active. I ended up gaining 40 pounds from lack of sleep, the stress of my internship, trying to get through medical school and eating to just stay awake. Then I got married and did not do any physical activity for about six years. I was so lethargic and I remember telling my wife I felt like I was dying of mental apathy. I just did not feel good.

By this time I was 29 years old. After six years of not exercising, I went water-skiing on Lake Texoma and had a cardiac arrhythmia that day. By the time I got to the hospital my heart rate had returned to normal and they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. The doctor told me I was simply out of shape. When I began to lose weight, my pre-diabetic condition and hypertension disappeared and I felt so much better. That’s when I realized the prevention of disease was a field of medicine that has been sadly ignored. That epiphany is what changed my attitude and ultimately my life. It redirected my interest away from orthopedic medicine which I had first planned to go into when I finished my military career.

Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper U.S. Air Force headshot

My exercise transitions through the years
I used to love water-skiing, basketball and running. However, I broke my leg snow-skiing back in 2004 so after 38,000 miles and 40 years of running I had to stop. But you never stop exercising—you transition. That’s when I transitioned into walking. They told me I would need a total knee replacement within six years but that has been 17 years ago now! I have walked faithfully since then along with outdoor and stationary cycling.

I always say the hardest part of exercise is putting on your shoes and getting started; the best part is the shower when you finish. Exercise creates an endorphin response in your body. It is why you become addicted to exercise and have withdrawal symptoms. I had to walk on crutches for a while when I broke my leg and I would see people running outside and get emotional and would shed a tear, thinking about how much I missed exercising.

I still work 10-12 hour days seeing patients and like to exercise after work five days a week. Exercising at the end of the day helps me to control the stress in my life. I have used exercise over the years as not only a cure to a stressful day headache, but to help me sleep better. I typically prefer to exercise alone. I like to watch TV while I’m on the stationary bicycle or the treadmill and enjoy meditating while I walk the dog around our neighborhood in the evenings. That is quiet time for me. I will ride the stationary bicycle for about 30 minutes before I complete a weight training circuit concentrating on upper body, arms and shoulders. When I go home, I walk our two dogs for about 15 to 30 minutes.

My exercise recommendations
Over the years, I used to think that aerobic training was all you needed to do but I realized as I grew older you need to bring in some muscular strengthening as well. After 50 years of age, you start losing muscle mass. My specific aerobic-strength training ratios that I recommend in all my books are:

  • 40 years old or younger: 80% aerobic exercise; 20% strength training
  • 41 to 50 years old: 70% aerobic exercise; 30% strength training
  • 51 to 60 years old: 60% aerobic exercise; 40% strength training
  • 60+ years old: 55% aerobic exercise; 45% strength training

My encouragement to you
I encourage you to set an example for your family—as we did at an early age in our family. My son, Tyler, runs regularly and all of our grandchildren are active. My oldest grandson was just accepted to Oklahoma State University; he is our baseball player and a great athlete! My wife, Millie, is still active at 85 years of age and works out five mornings a week going on walks with a close friend of hers. A family that exercises together stays together. It is so important for parents to set the example for their children and grandkids. 

Dr. and Mrs. Cooper running with daughter Berkley

No matter your age, whether you’re 19 or 90 years old, it is never too late to start exercising. As I always like to say, fitness is a journey not a destination. It is what you do now that counts, not what you did or didn’t do six months ago.

Categories: Cooper Updates
  1. March 9, 2021 at 7:41 pm

    So inspiring! Life is not a spectator sport!

  2. Brian Harris
    March 9, 2021 at 9:43 pm

    Great American! Started reading his book AEROBICS IN the 70s . My friends dad was the top doc at the UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
    My friend had high blood pressure. Now that friend is the kind you want that turns you on to Dr Cooper! Truly Great man.

  3. Attorney Vg Brooks
    March 10, 2021 at 7:45 am

    Happy birthday Dr. Cooper. Your life is an inspiration

  4. Mary & John Williamson
    March 13, 2021 at 8:35 pm

    We want to wish Dr. Cooper a “Happy Birthday” and thank him for inspiring us to live a healthy lifestyle. We we’re impressed with he and Millie many years ago when we were members of the same church,Trinity Baptist in in San Antonio, We shared their love of our pastor Buckner Fanning and his wife Martha.
    About that time Dr. Cooper was becoming “The Father of Aerobics.” We bought and read all his books and he even signed one,” THE AEROBIC PROGRAM FOR TOTAL WELLBEING” with a positive greeting. In Sept. 1985 we attended Dr. Cooper’s Health Retreat at Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas. We have a treasured photo we took of Ken & Millie at that retreat. Our lives were changed and we made our first visit to the Cooper Clinic in Dec. of the same year. Several more trips were made to the clinic with healthy improvements. Yearly, we have benefited from Wellness Exams and give Dr. Cooper credit for our healthy life styles. Cooper Complete Vitamins are mailed to us regularly This June, husband John will be celebrating 91 years and wife Mary 89 years. Also…celebrating 71 years of marriage.
    We thank God for all our many blessings and pray God will continue to bless Dr. Cooper and Millie and their family.

  5. Mike Short
    July 7, 2021 at 5:47 pm

    In 1977 I participated in a Kenneth Cooper Aerobics competition held in Dalla at the Cooper Aerobics Center. It was to promote aerobics and required 4 man teams and all events were relays. Our EDS team won the 4X 100 freestyle relay as well as the 1/2 mile run followed by a 100 yard swim for each participant. Roger Staubuck and Frank Shorter handed out the awards.

    Does any one remember what the other events were? We set the record that year for the 4X100 relay with all of us breaking 1 minute for our individual legs. We also set the record for the run/swim as well but I cant remember the third event.

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