Dr. Kenneth Cooper wanted to be an astronaut. He served 13 years as a military physician, first in the U.S. Army and then the Air Force. He directed the Aerospace Medical Laboratory and even developed a training program for NASA astronauts to help them manage the physical stresses of space flight. “But the Lord didn’t let me go that way,” Cooper recalls, betraying no sense of regret.
At age 18, during a particularly moving youth camp service in his native Oklahoma, he said yes to what he believed was a call from God to become a medical missionary to China. The fulfillment of that call eventually came, by Cooper’s calculation, but on a much different path than he had envisioned.
Cooper’s pastor, Jack Graham of Prestonwood Baptist Church in suburban Dallas, has often talked of “the scarlet thread of redemption” that weaves through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, foreshadowing and later revealing the Christ who saves. Cooper, who as an Air Force physician launched the modern aerobic exercise movement with his best-selling 1968 book “Aerobics,” says he sees that redemptive red line conspicuously weaved through the pattern of his life.
Still a spark plug of a man at 89, Cooper continues to practice what he has long preached, although a stationary bike, power walking and resistance training have replaced his lifelong habit of running. And he is still very active in seeing patients at Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, an endeavor that includes the Cooper Clinic and The Cooper Institute, as well as a fitness center, spa and hotel on the property.
He has helped prevent and diagnose disease, while challenging thousands toward a fit lifestyle geared to boost longevity and improve quality of life—among them world leaders, notable athletes, celebrities, corporate titans and scores of average folks. Yet Cooper, the “father of aerobics” and a world-renowned figure in fitness circles and among cardiovascular experts, knows there is much more to human beings than raw material.
The son of a periodontal dentist, Cooper, along with his two sisters and younger brother, grew up in a Christian home. The family was active in their local church in Oklahoma City, where Cooper, at age 9, received Christ as his savior and was baptized. In his teenage years, he regularly attended youth activities and camps and continued to grow in his faith.
Cooper excelled in school, graduating salutatorian of his high school class in 1949. But it was his love of basketball and track that would serve him well in his future occupation and research. He was an All-State basketball player and earned a track scholarship to the University of Oklahoma after winning the state championship in the one-mile run and missing a state high school record by a mere 1.4 seconds.
After undergraduate studies at OU and four years at OU Medical School—a time of rich spiritual and leadership growth—he went on to an internship in Seattle, Washington. Far from home and working long, grueling hours, eating poorly and neglecting exercise, he steadily gained weight, going from a fit 167 pounds to a pudgy 204. But his subtle neglect of spiritual fitness during this time eventually made him realize the importance of the spiritual disciplines of Bible study, prayer and corporate worship.
After joining the Army and completing officer training, he was assigned to a medical post at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, just a couple of hours from his home. While there, he met Millie, a Noble, Oklahoma, native who would become his wife. The couple eventually had a daughter, Berkley, and a son, Tyler, a physician who now serves as president and CEO of Cooper Aerobics. They also have five grandchildren.
Eventually, Cooper also earned a master of public health degree from Harvard (a degree Dr. Tyler Cooper also holds) and has used his influence to increase fitness programs in public schools and even convinced PepsiCo to drop trans-fats from its Frito-Lay line of snacks.
But even with his life’s work firmly rooted in helping others make the most of the bodies God gave them, Cooper has a message that transcends this life. Each day he prays for opportunities to share the hope and love of Jesus with whomever the Lord brings into his path. “I don’t care what your work is, you can be an ambassador for Christ,” he says.
“I start my day with prayer and Bible study, and I have a list of people I pray for every morning,” Cooper told Decision. “And then I say, ‘Lord give me a chance to witness.’ And almost every day I have a chance to give my testimony to someone.”
Cooper has made Dallas home since 1970 after leaving the Air Force short of retirement to follow an endeavor he believes God clearly led him to in lieu of pursuing the astronaut program. After some early challenges, The Cooper Institute, which hosted his research into the link between cardiovascular fitness, longevity and disease prevention, eventually grew—as did the total Cooper Aerobics operation. Today, they have almost 500 employees, including 24 full-time physicians and six Ph.D.s who work at The Institute.
One of the thrills of his lifetime, he says, was sharing his testimony before more than 200,000 people at Billy Graham’s 1974 Crusade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
More than four years earlier, Cooper had been asked to train the Brazilian Men’s National Soccer Team for the heat and high altitude of the 1970 World Cup, which culminated with the finals in Mexico City. The team, which included the legendary Pelé, claimed a world championship and is still considered by many soccer enthusiasts as the greatest World Cup squad ever.
The team’s success was so celebrated in Brazil that Cooper became known to many Brazilians. To this day, jogging in the Portuguese language is known as “Coopering.” Since the 1970s, Cooper has been to Brazil 21 times, speaking, visiting dignitaries and even working alongside American missionaries. He has also been to China 13 times and has spoken in 48 other nations.
Cooper says he sees more clearly now than at any other time that God has been the one directing his steps, and that His sovereign plans are trustworthy. “I love my patients, I love the work and I know this is what the Lord called me to do,” Cooper says.
“So many things in my life can’t be explained except by divine intervention. God has had His hand on my life all these years. He has kept His hand on me from Day 1.”
Cooper: Vitamin D Might Save Your Life
Studies show link between vitamin D and COVID-19 severity
Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the renowned aerobic health pioneer, has long been a proponent of vitamin D’s health benefits, even making it part of the regimen for his patients at the renowned Cooper Clinic in Dallas. But could one’s level of vitamin D play a crucial role in the rates of novel coronavirus infection and the severity of COVID-19 symptoms?
Several recent studies and Cooper’s own research suggest the answer is yes.
The so-called “sun vitamin” has long been known for its role in helping regulate the immune system, acting as an anti-inflammatory, lowering heart disease and cancer rates, aiding bone health and lowering rates of Alzheimer’s, dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
“For everyone with insufficient vitamin D levels— and especially for people of color, who research shows have significantly lower rates of naturally occurring vitamin D from sun exposure—I believe this is a life-saving message that needs to be repeated loudly and often.”
He says most everyone can safely and inexpensively take vitamin D supplements as a preventive health measure.
Pointing to published studies in such places as the Journal of the American Medical Association and the British Medical Journal, Cooper says research on vitamin D’s link to lowered rates of acute respiratory illnesses and severe COVID-19 cases is consistent with his own testing of some 4,500 Cooper Clinic patients since last spring for coronavirus antibodies and antigens. Across the board, Cooper’s patients have shown much lower than average rates of coronavirus antibodies, and significantly higher rates of vitamin D—the latter a result of his patients using vitamin D supplements (he recommends at least 2,000 IU daily).
Researchers, Cooper among them, believe vitamin D plays a role in preventing the so-called “cytokine storm,” in which immune system proteins called cytokines attack cells rather than the invading virus. In COVID-19 patients, this is most often happening in the lungs, which frequently leads to fatal pneumonia.
Cooper Clinic recommends a normal vitamin D blood level in the range of 40-50 ng/ml, and even up to 100 nanograms per milliliter is in the upper limits of normal. The research shows that those with blood levels of less than 20 are at a 77% increased risk of COVID-19 infection. Citing a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Cooper says about 85% of people of color have vitamin D blood levels in the low teens and single digits unless they are taking supplements.
“The good news is, this can be corrected easily by taking vitamin D as a supplement,” Cooper says. “That’s a message that we need to get around the world.”
Above: Franklin Graham and Dr. Cooper stand in front of a framed photo from Billy Graham’s 1974 Crusade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.