DR KENNETH COOPER
The Father of Aerobics
It’s hard to believe but until the early 1960’s, few doctors and fewer non-professionals knew just how much exercise was good or necessary. In the 1950’s it was actually discouraged by some doctors. Dr P Steincrohn in his book How to Keep Fit Without Exercise, wrote that “to have a strong heart it is essential to give up all unnecessary exercise” and he concluded that “exercise is bosh”. Fortunately, not everyone had such extreme views, and most people thought it was probably a good idea, but apart from a warning of “not to overdo it”, little else was offered.
It wasn’t until the space race began in the early 1960’s that the full benefits of exercise became apparent. It began when a young United States Air Force doctor, Captain Kenneth Cooper, started experimenting on astronauts who were training for projects planned for the late 1960’s. Although his interest lay with astronauts, his subjects also included thousands of airmen who were in all kinds of physical condition, from flabby and overweight to muscular and trim.
For Dr Cooper no expense was spared on his laboratory equipment. He was able to measure the men’s pulse rate, muscle-to-fat ratio, and size and strength of their muscles. He was also able to measure how much air their lungs could take in and expel, and how much blood was pumped through their arteries with each heartbeat. By putting the men on a treadmill and running them to exhaustion he was able to test their endurance.
It quickly became obvious to Dr Cooper that the men who could last longest on the treadmill were very different to those who tired easily. These men were not overweight and had a low body fat percentage, they did not have exceptionally strong muscles and their resting heart rate was low. In fact their hearts were able to pump nearly twice as much blood with each beat and their lungs could take in and expel one and half times as much air. When he analysed the gasses exhaled by the airmen as they ran on the treadmill, those that excelled at the test had higher oxygen consumption than the others. From this he devised a measurement that is now called VO2max – ‘V’ for volume, ‘02’ for oxygen in the air and ‘max’ for maximum. In other words V02max is the volume of oxygen that the body uses up when it is working as hard as it can. As muscles require oxygen to produce energy, the greater the oxygen consumption the greater the capacity for energy production, which equals greater endurance.
Although physiologists at the University of Minnesota in the mid 1950’s had established a relationship between endurance and physical fitness, Dr Cooper took it one step further. He hypothesised that one measurement V02max served to assess this relationship and because V02max depends on the performance of two of the body’s most important systems – the circulatory and the respiratory – Dr Cooper concluded that V02max is a measurement of basic fitness. People with a high V02max are fit; those with a low V02max are not.
It became evident to Dr Cooper that anyone who wished to experience the benefits of a high V02max, could do so by taking up an activity that was similar to running on a treadmill. To get the biological engine running at idle, most of the time, he suggested that its owner had to speed it up regularly. He called these endurance exercises "aerobics" (a word meaning ‘in the presence of oxygen’). He also surprised many people when he declared that weight lifting, golf, tennis and many other sports that people had thought of as good exercises, were essentially useless in building V02max.
He also devised a points system, which gave different activities different scores and suggested that 30 points a week was required to produce fitness and maintain it.
Now for the first time people were being given specific advice rather than “don’t overdo it” about how much of what kind of exercise is good for health.
Though physiologists have since refined his conclusions, no one disputes Dr Cooper’s ground breaking experiments and his hypothesis that physical fitness is best measured by oxygen consumption.
Dr Kenneth Cooper ‘the father of aerobics’ a title justifiably deserved.