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Aerobics Marks 40-Year Anniversary

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Changing Definition of Fitness

Names and dates are not my strong suit, but I never forget the name aerobics and the date 1968. Aerobics is the term coined by Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper to describe a system of exercise that increases oxygen uptake capacity and produces other beneficial changes in the body. The date is the year Cooper’s landmark book Aerobics was published. Carol and I read the book shortly after it came out and have been doing some form of aerobics ever since.

The fall 2008 issue on CooperHealth (www.cooperaerobics.com) commemorates the 40th anniversary of aerobics and tells the story of the concept and the book. It also spotlights the evolving definition of fitness. It’s a fascinating and important story.

Cooper Shows the Way

The aerobics story begins in 1961 with Dr. Cooper on water skis.  “All of a sudden, my heart was racing, and I was having a hard time breathing,” says Cooper. He thought he was having a heart attack.

A 29-year-old working hard to launch his medical career in the U. S. Air Force, Cooper had allowed his weight to balloon from 168 pounds to 204. After a thorough medical evaluation, the doctor told Cooper: “The only thing wrong with you is that you’re out of shape.”

Cooper took the diagnosis seriously. He began exercising and eating more wisely, lost 40 pounds, and ran his first marathon a year later—the 1962 Boston Marathon. More importantly, he began thinking deeply about the connection between fitness and health. He started asking questions. What is the most important form of exercise? What is the proper dose to prescribe to patients? How can physical fitness be measured?

“There was no research on the topic of exercise at the time, so I set out to do what no one else had done,” says Cooper.

Few, in fact, equated exercise with health. Fitness as we think of it today did not exist. Doctors defined fitness as freedom from disease. (That’s a bit of a surprise to those of us who grew up reading the gospel of strength/muscle and health as preached by Bob Hoffman http://www.cbass.com/MUSCLETO.HTM and the Weider brothers http://www.cbass.com/Weider.htm .) We’ll come back to the changing definition of fitness later.

Dr. Cooper spent the next two years doing research on the impact of exercise, which led to the creation of the world-renowned 1.5 mile and 12-minute tests to measure aerobic fitness—and his celebrated Aerobics point system. This information became the foundation of his book Aerobics.

This may sound like a smooth path, but it wasn’t. Let’s look at two attention-grabbing and, by hindsight, surprising road blocks.

Aerobics Enters the Lexicon

Armed with his research, Cooper took on the medical establishment—and the media.

After two years of writing and editing (and months of waiting for clearance from the Air Force), Aerobics was published in March 1968. That’s when the battle was joined.

His publisher booked him on the national radio program, Monitor, hosted by Barbara Walters. Cooper tells about it in CooperHealth:

“I’m sitting at Radio City Music Hall, and Ms. Walters walks in to tape the interview with her hair in rollers. She didn’t even look at me and conducted a very curt interview.”

Afterward, Cooper asked her “What’s wrong with you?” She replied, “You’re a fraud. I called Air Force headquarters, and they said they don’t support your book or programs.”

Dr. Cooper responded by showing her official documentation of his testing of Air Force men and women, along with the Air Force brochure on his fitness program.

Walters was apparently won over.

She took the materials, and returned a few minutes later to tell Cooper he was booked to appear on the Today show the next day.

That was a walk in the park compared to the reception Cooper received from the medical community two years later when he moved his family to Dallas and opened a private preventive medicine practice. The Dallas County Medical Society tried to shut him down.

They were concerned about him subjecting patients to maximal performance treadmill stress testing. “The board thought I was going to kill people,” Cooper explained.

He again prevailed by presenting the voluminous supporting data he had gathered. The hearing before the Board of Censors ended in his favor. What’s more, the board chairman took an inventory of Cooper’s equipment—and became the second physician to do maximal stress testing in Dallas.

“Many people don’t realize the challenges I’ve faced. Aerobics and preventive medicine haven’t always been popular,” says Cooper. “I persevered through it all because I knew that a healthy life means a long and productive life.”

He persevered and prevailed.

In 1986, Dr. Cooper submitted the definition of Aerobics to the Oxford English Dictionary.  

The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition, 1989 states: “The concept of aerobics was pioneered by physician Kenneth H. Cooper and popularized in his books Aerobics (1968) and The Aerobics Way (1977).”

Wikipedia, the free internet encyclopedia, adds this historical note about aerobics: “Both the term and the specific exercise method were developed by Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D. …His groundbreaking book, Aerobics, was published in 1968, and included scientific exercise programs using running, walking, swimming and bicycling. The book came at a fortuitous historical moment, when increasing weakness and inactivity in the general population was causing a perceived need for increased exercise…Cooper's data provided the scientific baseline for almost all modern aerobics programs, most of which are based on oxygen-consumption equivalency.”

The rest is history. See the account of my latest visit to the Cooper Clinic, including the hour I spent with Dr. Cooper http://www.cbass.com/CooperClinic20-yearanniversay.htm 

Let’s return to the changing definition of fitness, and the role of weight/strength training.

Father of Aerobics Pumps Iron

Again, when Dr. Cooper started practicing medicine fitness meant being free from disease. It made no difference how far you could walk, run, bike or swim in a given period of time.

Dr. Cooper’s original research changed the definition of fitness and it has continued to evolve and become more sophisticated.

In the decade after the publication of Aerobics, fitness came to mean heart, lung, and circulatory system capability. Fitness and oxygen uptake capacity became essentially synonymous. Fitness meant aerobic fitness. The strength of your bones and muscles didn’t count for much; they were thought of as largely cosmetic.

Aerobic exercise does, however, involve the muscles. Citing Dr. Cooper and others, Wikipedia tells us that aerobic conditioning trains the heart to pump blood and oxygen more efficiently to the organs—and muscles. While the heart, lungs, and circulatory system do benefit, more than 50% of the resulting changes take place in the muscles themselves. For example, skeletal muscle mitochondria increase in both size and number with aerobic training, providing the muscle with much more oxidative capacity. In short, aerobic exercise turns the muscles being used into oxygen processing power houses.

Dr. Cooper has come to appreciate that total fitness includes the strength and endurance of the muscles. “Both aerobic (endurance) and strength training should be a part of every person’s fitness program,” Cooper and his physician son, Tyler Cooper, write in their book Start Strong, Finish Strong (Avery, 2007).

“At age 55, I could run 5 miles in 40 minutes, but for the first time in years, I couldn’t ski more than two hours without my quadriceps burning so bad I had to stop and wait for my legs to catch up,” Dr. Cooper told CooperHealth. Even though his cardiovascular conditioning was top-notch, his muscles and bones weren’t in the same great shape.

After that experience, Dr. Cooper added weight training to his conditioning regimen.

The Coopers now tell their patients to shift their workout toward more strength training over time. From age 30 to 40, they suggest 80% aerobic exercise and 20% weight/strength training; from 40 to 50, the suggested ratio shifts to 70-30; from 50 to 60, it goes to 60-40; and over 60, to 55-45.

The ratios are, however, flexible. As long as aerobic exercise constitutes at least 50% of the workout schedule, the strength training portion of the workout can vary based on personal preference. For example, I favor a 50-50 balance starting at age 30.

Concept Expands to Include Wellness

We’ve all seen or heard aerobic exercise referred to as “cardio.” The Drs. Cooper say in Start Strong, Finish Strong that cardio is a “misnomer because it may suggest that endurance exercise has only cardiovascular benefits. In fact, our studies and those of other scientists show that aerobic exercise provides health and longevity benefits that go well beyond the cardiovascular.” For examples, see “Greater Fitness/Longer life” (http://www.cbass.com/GreaterFitness.htm ) and other articles on this website.

That being the case, why not come full circle (remember, doctors defined fitness as disease-free, well) and expand the definition of fitness to include wellness? Why not indeed, says Dr. Cooper.

 “We [have] expanded our concept from just exercise to one of wellness,” says Dr. Cooper.

In addition to exercise, he says, wellness includes: weight control, good nutrition, proper supplementation, not smoking, limiting alcohol, controlling stress, and periodic medical and fitness exams.

Thanks to Dr. Cooper and others, fitness has come a long way in the last 50 years. It’s a sure bet that the next 50 years will bring even more valuable guidance to help us help ourselves.

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