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A Run for Their Money
Kenny Moore
November 04, 1974
...and maybe their lives. Business executives seem to be taking the word of Dr. Kenneth Cooper as gospel, crowding into his Aerobics Center in Dallas to jog and pedal and plunge their way toward healthy disciplines
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November 04, 1974

A Run For Their Money

...and maybe their lives. Business executives seem to be taking the word of Dr. Kenneth Cooper as gospel, crowding into his Aerobics Center in Dallas to jog and pedal and plunge their way toward healthy disciplines

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Grant Fitts, 56, is president and chairman of the board of the Gulf Life Holding Company, an insurance conglomerate that has assets of more than $800 million. A colloquial, narrow-eyed Texan, he has just left his private metallic-wallpapered gym in Dallas after running four level miles on a treadmill at eight minutes per mile and walking another mile with the treadmill set at a five-degree angle, for a total of 24 aerobic points. Those are the indicators of oxygen consumption invented and made famous in the books Aerobics and The New Aerobics by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a neighbor whom Fitts is discussing.

"My own doctor slights ole Cupper," he says, suppressing a smile. "These doctors are all jealous of course. Seems the American Medical Association frowns on this exercise kick because no one yet has come up with real, hard proof that it prevents disease. And I'll agree that right now it depends on faith. But there are a hell of a lot of us who don't enjoy runnin' all that much, but who suspect there's somethin' to it. When I read Cupper's first book I'd had an allergy for years—huge practices these allergists have, 'cause they never cure anybody, just give 'em shots for 10 years. My nose would stop up at the mention of dust. Well, I started in. At the time I had a penthouse—fairly roomy, about 4,400 square feet—so I put in a 50-yard track and ran around the apartment. I did it for my heart, but you know after a month that allergy was gone?" Fitts now lives in a townhouse of such Byzantine opulence as to paralyze his guest, who is unaccustomed to fruit bowls twice as valuable as his own house.

"Let me tell you about my man Hobbes," Fitts continues. "When I promoted him to president of our largest subsidiary, I knew he'd had a heart attack some time before. I didn't pressure him to go to ole Cupper, I swear I didn't. I just said, like we do to all our key men, we'll make everything available free, we'd like you to go, and what have you got to lose? Well, he went along and took his tests—that tank is enough to spook you [in Cooper's examination, patients are measured underwater, in what appears to be a torpedo tube, to determine through displacement the percentage of their body weight that is fat]. He stayed on the treadmill [a standardized stress test in which the patient's heart rate, electrocardiogram and blood pressure are monitored] eight minutes—very poor. But he followed the exercise program they gave him, walking first, then a little jogging, then a little more. He's no fanatic. Why should he chance busting something loose again? But now he goes 19 minutes on the treadmill and there is no evidence of heart damage. He's in super health and doing a magnificent job for the company." Fitts pauses a moment, in reflection. "Course, it helps to be making $150,000 a year."

Across the lane from Fitts' home, tinkling, misty piano music floats from loudspeakers through the dense air, scoring what seems an animated marvel, a Disney-inspired line of jerky, thick-waisted, windup men trotting in candy-stripe shorts on a synthetic path beneath oaks and poplars, across little bridges, beside ducks bobbing on a pond. The bandy legs, ripple-soled shoes and wholesome and manful expressions belong to Dallas business executives, members of the Aerobics Activity Center, who pay a little over a dollar a day for the privilege of retooling their cardiovascular systems on Dr. Cooper's home ground.

"A couple of years ago I spent some time in St. Andrews, Scotland," Grant Fitts says. "I visited a cemetery near there more than a thousand years old. There was a huge wall and that was where people were buried—stuck 'em in this damn wall. I noticed the headstones, the dates, how long people had lived. Seemed if a guy made it to 20, he went on up to 70 or 80. But there were just hundreds who died as children. So you can talk about how we've raised life expectancy in this century, but you got to remember you're talkin' averages. What we've really done is remove the diseases of youth—polio, scarlet fever, typhoid, cholera, smallpox.... The kids get to grow up, the averages rise, but people still die at 70, or less. Now it will be interesting to see if we can do anything about that. Ole Cupper figures to try."

The American public has been down the garden path with its doctors before. In the 1930s thousands of ailing teeth were pulled, in the belief such treatment would ease aching joints. Perfectly healthy tonsils were removed in the 1940s when the prevailing dogma was that a tonsilectomy prevented infection. The memory of such hasty prescriptions underlies the medical profession's current insistence that innovations be judged on the ground of statistically valid evidence. Today a researcher announcing a breakthrough expects to be criticized, and so it has been with Kenneth Cooper.

Cooper is convinced, and would dearly love to affirm, that proper exercise prevents heart disease. He cannot because while many studies have yielded correlations between the two (those who exercise do seem to have fewer heart attacks), the studies have not been structured in such a way to permit the inference of cause and effect. For example, of 460 men visiting the Cooper Clinic who were found to have positive electrocardiograms (a reliable indicator of heart disease), almost 60% were in the poor fitness category; only eight performed long enough on the treadmill to be rated in excellent physical condition. It may be that people who find it easy to stay in shape are also naturally resistant to coronary disease: a correlation between the two exists but exercise may not cause the low risk. The only way the question can be settled is through a lengthy study of two matched groups, one exercising and the other not, and comparing the rates of heart disease. Cooper proposes to do such a study in the course of the next decade. In the meantime he operates in that perilous zone between scientist and proselytizer.

"This is an idea that could reshape the lives of millions," he says in a low, level tone that conveys an intensity, a pressing on, an assumption of insatiable interest on the part of his listener. "We are working to quantify a level of fitness that protects you from coronary disease. We know of at least eight factors that increase the chance of heart disease: 1) lasting less than 15 minutes on our treadmill during a stress test, 2) a positive ECG, 3) blood pressure of 140-90 or higher, 4) cholesterol level of 250 or higher, 5) triglyceride level of 150 or more [the last two are measures of fatty tissue in the blood], 6) fasting blood sugar of 110 or above, 7) smoking, 8) body fat over 19% for men, 22% for women. We have found perfect correlations between our five fitness categories [measured, again, by how long patients stay on the treadmill] and six of these eight risk factors. We will be able to say there is a cause-and-effect relationship after our longitudinal study."

There are no pauses in Cooper's conversation. One is required to force one's way in. Is it the role of the researcher, he is asked, to predict the outcome of his own study with such assurance?

"Am I biased?" he says. "Of course, but not to the point of abusing science." He explains that the Institute for Aerobics Research is separate from his clinic and activity center. Physiologist Michael Pollock and Computer Scientist Gerry Purdy are in charge of evaluating the data generated in the center. "I've brought Mike and Gerry in to protect me from any of my hopes influencing the project," Cooper says. "I've been called a zealot, yes. And while it can be bad in pure science, enthusiasm and commitment are necessary to move things.

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