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Faith-Based Aerobics?

Share This article - Note from the publisher: Known as the “father of aerobic exercise,” Dr. Kenneth Cooper helped to launch a new movement in America. In 1968, he published Aerobics, which offered the then-revolutionary notion that vigorous exercise could help people get and stay healthy. Two years later, he founded the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, a world-renowned facility devoted to the benefits of exercise and preventive medicine. He later published the book Faith-Based Fitness. In it, he asserts that “faith” can play a significant role in a person’s health.

For most people the pace of daily life is increasingly being shaped by demands, goals, schedules and expectations. Personal faith is pushed to the fringes of importance to where it has little or no role in daily life and long-term attitudes.

I wanted to get Dr. Cooper’s perspective on the relevance of faith for those pursuing a healthy lifestyle in today’s rapidly driven culture. As I began to put this interview together for publication I was encouraged to discover an entrepreneur that recognizes “divine intervention” to be central in his life. His daily life schedule and motivated agenda balanced with his commitment to wellness and God, blows away anyone’s excuse, “I’m too busy to have faith and exercise.”

Faith & Fitness Magazine: As part of USA Today’s 25th Anniversary they did a special report on the twenty-five most important trends that mark “A quarter-century of changes”. Number 17 identified the “Diet and exercise boom”. They refer to all sorts of initiatives and products and then say, “for results see #9 above”. Number 9 of course is the “Obesity crisis”. American’s tend to laugh at the irony in that. But seriously, back when you started your institute would you have ever imagined that our best health and wellness efforts would lead us to an era where we readily recognize that we are in a crisis situation?

Dr. Kenneth Cooper: No, in fact to the contrary, when I published my first book almost forty years ago in 1968 we had less than 24% of our adult population exercising. Less than 30% of our people were overweight. Less than 10% were obese. The book came out over night a best seller. People started jogging all around the world but especially here in the United States.

In 1984 a Gallop Poll showed that 59% of the population was exercising. But, by 1990 there was a major drop. At that time we were up to about 35% to 40% of our population being overweight. After the year 2000 people (baby boomers especially) started losing interest. Then the obesity epidemic started exploding. By 2000, 65.4% of the population was overweight of which some 35% were obese (that is about 30 pounds overweight). Women have kind of slowed but men are still going up. Is it getting any better? It’s getting worse – particularly among American men. It is an epidemic that is beyond belief.

F&F: What factors have contributed the most to this crisis?

KC: Inactivity! For our children it is four things: Number 1 is that there are no P.E. programs in the schools. They don’t walk or ride their bicycles to school like they used to. They are spending up to forty hours per week watching television and playing video games. Finally, they are the fast food generation. In a recent radio broadcast on how women can get back to their pre-pregnancy weight the following things were identified that women need to do: They have to walk at least thirty minutes for five days per week. They have to keep television viewing down to less than two hours per day. They have to eliminate trans-fats from their diet.

F&F: Share a bit about why you started the Cooper Institute and how you feel your mission has evolved over the years.

KC: Back in 1970 there was no data to show that exercise was of any value. It was all based around the idea that it makes you “feel good”. The data was suspect. They told people what they wanted to hear. They exaggerated and even sometimes lied. Our purpose was to collect data. That is exactly what we have done for the past thirty years. What we’ve published and shown is that exercise [walking] reduces death from all causes by some 58% and has the potential to increase your lifespan by six years.

F&F: Back in ’95 you wrote a book that was later titled Faith-Based Fitness. Just by the title of it some might presume that it was only popular among conservative Christians?

KC: No, not at all. People, over the years, have asked me how I’ve been so successful. In 1970 my work was controversial. My supporting colleagues said, “You can’t limit your practice of medicine to taking care of healthy people and make ends meet.” I thought they were right the first couple of years – I didn’t see many patients. Now, we have a staff of over 700. We have twenty-nine physicians on our staff. We’re building a whole new center. Our operating budget last year was $55 million. Highly successful despite the prediction of doom.

I was 40 years of age when my wife and I got on our knees and prayed desperately for three days about what to do to leave that promising career in the Air Force for some thirteen years. I turned my back on that with a pregnant wife and no insurance. We moved to a new place. My chances of surviving were one in a thousand. I look back at that in retrospect and the number one reason why I’ve been so successful is because of divine intervention. You wouldn’t believe how much I prayed for Christ to guide us over the years. For so many years – having decisions to make, I wanted to make it one way but I didn’t and went the other way. Looking back in retrospect it would have been disaster if I went the way I wanted to go. Divine intervention – all the way.

My faith – my belief, is where my power comes from. When I speak, time and time again someone will come up to me afterward and say, “I appreciate your Christian testimony.”

F&F: What are the basic tenets of the book? And – what was your goal with it?

KC: It is to empower people. The goal is to tell them that our beliefs are one of the most powerful things we have. If we have strong beliefs, along with discipline, we can reach a level of ultimate fitness both spiritually and physically. I try to point out in the book that unless you are both spiritually and physically fit you really aren’t “fit”. You won’t know and have the joy and peace in life that you want. The combination of both gives you a synergistic effect.

I start my day with prayer and Bible study. My prayer list includes all my patients. I have a very busy day. I’m 76 years of age still working 60 hours a week. Before I go home at night I’ll go workout at our fantastic fitness center. By the time I go home of an evening, I have done a good day’s work. I’ve been both spiritually blessed of a morning and physically blessed in the afternoon.

F&F: What concerns do you have that as our culture becomes more secular and practices faith less that we’ll see even a greater decline in health?

KC: One thing that disturbs me – I was speaking with a group of Christian leaders working in health facilities and churches. I challenged them to go back to their people and build up their physical fitness as well as their spiritual fitness. But you’ve got to lead the way! Half the people there were about fifty to one hundred pounds overweight. These were full-time Christian workers.

F&F: I don’t think that faith-based fitness is an out-dated concept, but it’s certainly a rather foreign perspective for many. Have we moved beyond what we once understood to be the basis of how we as humans navigate through life? Is it perhaps better for us to live purely on our scientific understanding rather than our intrinsic beliefs?

KC: No. Without question, if we had to rely upon science completely, we’d make disastrous decisions. We have to combine both. We recently completed a study of 10,000 men and women looking at their major levels of fitness and looked at twelve qualities of life. From anxiety to depression to muscle and joint pain – all the things considered in quality of life, there wasn’t a single one out of line. We have a wonderful way to improve our overall quality of life if we embrace the concept of fitness and wellness. We are meant to be active. We are challenged throughout the Bible that we need to consider our body as the temple of the Holy Spirit and treat it accordingly.

F&F: I suspect that anyone that embraces and practices any kind of faith can use their faith to strengthen their fitness level.

KC: Without question. Their faiths - their beliefs are one of the most powerful tools they have – if they know how to use it. If you believe you can improve your level of fitness then you are going to do it. If you believe you can improve your spiritual life then you are going to do it.

F&F: What are some distinctive qualities of the Christian faith that are key to faith-based fitness?

KC: Our bodies don’t last because of the way we treat them. Moderation in the consumption of alcohol [is important]. In my basic rules of wellness I list proper weight, diet, nutrition along with exercise, elimination of tobacco and drugs, stress management, and then have periodic wellness examinations. Look at those. They have a spiritual base.

F&F: How can both churches and Christian individuals better impact their communities and personal friends?

KC: Start faith-based fitness organizations in their church. Many churches now have developed activity centers. They have programs for pregnant women, aerobics classes and programs for seniors [to name a few]. Let the church set the example from the fitness standpoint. We have two big fitness centers in Dallas. I’m very pleased that my church has a fitness and wellness program because there is room for all of us to do this. Set the example and make it available. Don’t overload [church] dinners with fat. I think our churches can go light-years forward if they will try to set the example.

F&F: American’s for a long time have been obsessed with longevity in life. More recently we’ve bolstered our appreciation of the “quality of life issues”. Today we want it all – a quality life that lasts forever. In your book toward the end you talk about how you want to live fully. What does that really mean?

KC: It means, square off the curve. Live a long healthy life and then die suddenly. If you want to square off the curve you must condense the time of senility.

F&F: The Bible records Jesus saying, “I’ve come that you can have life and have it more abundantly.” From your own personal faith and fitness perspective how is that true?

KC: I’m productive. I get work done, lecture, have a radio program, have major projects in the state legislature, doing a $1billion construction project and I’m active in my church. There is no way I could do that, if I wasn’t in good shape. When I take a break I get board. It [these things in life] stimulates me. Stress is the spice of life. It is not stress that kills it is how you handle stress that kills.

F&F: What trends do you think we will see in health and wellness in the coming decade?

KC: We have to change from the feeling of entitlement that the government is obligated to take care of us. The mentality is, “I’ve been paying Medicare and Social Security so I can abuse my body and end up requiring a heart transplant. I can do anything I want and the government is obligated to take care of me.”

We’re relying on others to take care of us. Until we change that attitude – until we take personal responsibility for our health we will never get ahead. We will see the cost of health care reach a level by 2015 that medical care will be rationed unless we do something to change that. The only way to do that is to get people considering their health their personal responsibility.

F&F: If faith plays a greater role in fitness what bearing might that have?

KC: If you have strong Christian beliefs, it is going to affect your entire life. As I say in the book, [a woman shared] that once her husband got involved in an exercise program it improved his physical fitness so high (they had never been that way in years) that he started to go to church with her again. Is that related? I don’t know.

I think some of these qualities of life that occur once you get in shape give you more of a spiritual dimension. You start looking at the broader perspective and realize that, “I can’t keep smoking and maintain a high level of fitness.” “I can’t keep eating – abusing my diet and weight and maintain a high level of fitness.”

Maybe they finally think, “Well I’ve gone this far with my physical life maybe I should look at my spiritual life.”

Brad Bloom

From Faith & Fitness Magazine April/May 2007. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2007 Faith & Fitness Magazine and Lifestyle Media Group. Faith & Fitness Magazine is a lifestyle resource to build physical and spiritual strength. It helps readers make connections between the Christian faith and the fitness lifestyle. To contact the publisher of Faith & Fitness Magazine, Brad Bloom, for reprint permission, e-mail


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Reprinted with permission. Copyright © Faith & Fitness Magazine and Lifestyle Media Group. Faith & Fitness Magazine is on-line at It is published six times per year as a resource for building physical and spiritual strength. They provide live support and program development for individuals, churches, and communities. For more information or to obtain permission to reprint this article, email