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Hangin' with Dr. Cooper

Once he received his Lifetime Achievement Award on Thursday, Dr. Kenneth Cooper didn't waste time getting right to the heart of his life's work: health and exercise.

After a standing ovation, Cooper received the glass award from Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro magazine editor Pam Kufahl and told the packed audience, "I'm overwhelmed to be honored by my colleagues in the field."

Then Cooper got down to business in his 45-minute Power Point presentation. The numbers Cooper displayed were eye-opening, both in the increase in exercise by Americans over the years and the growing number of Americans who are overweight or obese. Some 40 years ago, Cooper, who is referred to as "The Father of Aerobics," simply changed turned the term aerobic from an adjective to a noun by adding an "s" at the end of the word.

Cooper, founder of the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, highlighted the exercise boom of the 1970s and 1980s with statistics from 1968 and 1984. In 1968, the number of joggers in America was less than 100,000, and the number of Americans who exercised was 24 percent. There wasn't a lot of emphasis on staying healthy in the later years of life back then.

"After 40 years of age, you had a foot in the grave," Cooper said.

By 1984, there were 34 million joggers, and 59 percent of Americans exercised.

These days are stressful times for many Americans, and there are a lot of factors, such as cigarette smoking, that lead to poor health habits.

"People eat when they're under stress," Cooper said. "We need exercise more than ever."

As for the obesity epidemic in children, Cooper said, "Our kids are fatter and less fit than at any time in our history."

Cooper, with the help of his Fitnessgram tests in his home state of Texas, is doing something about it. With the help of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the Fitnessgram bill in 2007 that mandated Texas schools to give the test to their students, Cooper has found a new avenue to deliver his message. Cooper proudly admitted it took him only 3 months to raise $3 million from private donors to fund the Fitnessgram tests and to train Texas teachers. The audience applauded Cooper's efforts.

Cooper acknowledged PE4life's Phil Lawler, who was in the audience and received a round of applause. Lawler, the champion of youth fitness at Naperville (IL) Central High School, said later that Cooper admitted he's been making a "mistake" for 40 years. Cooper says he should have started targeting children first so that they would lead healthier lives in the future.

"Exercise re-wires the brain. Exercise is fertilizer for the brain," Cooper told the audience.

With America at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cooper stressed the importance of healthy, fit troops and how important it is to start getting them fit as kids.

"The security of our country is at stake because of what we're doing in our schools," Cooper said.

A few years back, President George W. Bush, one of Cooper's patients, asked Cooper to become the country's surgeon general. After differences of what the Bush administration wanted him to do and what Cooper wanted to do in that role, Cooper declined.

"I said, ‘You've got the wrong man,'" Cooper said at the time.

But Cooper and Bush remain close. In fact, Cooper says Bush is in the top 1 percent in his age group in regards to his fitness. Bush, Cooper says, credits fitness and faith for controlling stress in his life.

America spends only 1 percent on preventative health care, and that's the main reason the country is in a health care crisis, Cooper says.

"It's too much care too late," Cooper says.

An avid runner for most of his life, Cooper showed a photo of him running in the Boston Marathon years ago. He ended up as the last official qualifier, and that was mainly because Cooper's wife prevented marathon officials from packing up early at the finish line.

"As soon as I'd finish, they all went home," Cooper said before a roar of laughter from the audience.

Cooper showed other photos of some of his patients who were avid runners well into their 70s and 80s. One patient finished his 60th Boston Marathon at the age of 82. Another patient, who was still running in her 70s, credited Cooper for helping her enjoy her later years.

"Because of you, I forgot to grow old," she told him.

Cooper, now 77, admits he still works 60 hours a week. A skiing accident a few years back has prevented him from running regularly, so he walks instead. He is, literally, a walking billboard for the health practices he preaches. In his closing remarks, before another standing O, Cooper said, "I wouldn't be here today if I didn't exercise."

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