Kenneth H. Cooper, MD, now in his 86th year, is the most famous living guru in the field of fitness. He is the father of the aerobics movement whose books, medical clinic, research, and lectures have probably turned a million or more couch potatoes into regular athletes. Cooper’s first book, titled Aerobics, recalls some of the wisdom of Schopenhauer, who noted that all reforms have three stages: first they are ignored, then they are vigorously opposed, and finally they are accepted as self-evident.
I know Dr. Cooper. He and his wife Millie are greatly admired. Only a nutcase would complain, criticize, criticize, or get mad at his work. Really, who would dare put a negative assessment on the recommendations of this famous exercise guru? Well he would.
I am opposed to Cooper’s much publicized Twelve Steps to Good Health. Cooper’s 12 Steps should not be confused with the more popular 12 Steps of Alcohol Anonymous, Joshua Rosenthal’s 12 Steps to Improve Your Lifelong Health, or Gabriel MA Segal’s book Twelve Steps to Good Psychological Health and Serenity. I’m not in love with these 12-step approaches either, but this review is just about Dr. Cooper’s signature 12-step recommendations.
Before I describe my concerns, take a look at Cooper’s Twelve Steps to Good Health.
1. Stop using all tobacco and drugs.
2. Limit alcohol to no more than 10 drinks per week.
3. Start exercising.
4. Use less salt, eat less fat, especially animal fat.
5. Eat more fresh vegetables.
6. Avoid obesity.
7. Take appropriate dietary supplements, including calcium and antioxidant vitamins C, E, and A.
8. Fasten your seat belt.
9. Avoid sun exposure.
10. Get vaccinated.
11. Get proper prenatal care.
12. Get regular medical exams.
The steps are repetitive and obvious (avoid smoking and obesity), too general (how much more of the good, how much less of the bad?), debatable (take supplements), and, in one case, inapplicable to half the population (prenatal care).
In short, they don’t add up to much. From such a highly lauded fitness expert, I think we should expect 12 groundbreaking, specific exercise tips we don’t know about yet, all reasonably specific.
Of course, 12 REAL wellness tips would be better.
Cooper’s steps reconsidered
Here is a critique of each step.
1. Stop using tobacco and drugs? Are you kidding? That is impossible for most people because they would not be caught dead or alive with tobacco products. (As for the drugs, well, that depends on the drugs.) Most people don’t smoke or abuse drugs anyway, although pain-relieving drugs (opioids) are a serious problem! A substitute step for those who don’t practice this heinous aspect of self-destruction: Try to experience at least 23 good laughs a day, more if possible.
2. Ten alcoholic drinks a week? That’s a lot! Alcohol is fattening, expensive and often contains sugar. Excessive drinking often makes one look stupid. A substitute step: Drink at least eight glasses of water a day.
3. Start exercising? Where have you been? On the moon? No one can be well without regular exercise and premature illness and death without it is guaranteed, unless they die first from an accident or something. Don’t enter middle age without it! A Substitute Step: Increase Your Exercise Regimen! Do more than the minimum daily requirements to avoid illness. Take the advice of the late Dr. George Sheehan: be a good animal and move often, with grace and power.
4. Less salt, less fat? You can do much better. Consider becoming a vegan. Even a half-vegan, or part-time vegan, also known as a vegetarian. Doing so will contribute to less cruelty to animals and probably weight loss, should you need to lose weight.
5. More fresh vegetables? It depends. It depends on how much you are eating right now. A substitute step: Put less emphasis on food and more on adding meaning and excitement to life. Feed your passions.
6. Avoid obesity? Of course. Good idea. Be sure to also avoid radiation exposure, hungry reptiles, the Republican Party, and the bubonic plague, while you’re at it. One Substitute Step: Commit to achieving and maintaining a fit body through lifelong exercise and good eating habits.
7. Food supplements? Few need them. Harvard Health Letter points out that if the supplements really worked (something dubious for most), they would carry risks of side effects as well as benefits. No drug is completely safe, even if taken as directed.
8. Fasten your seat belt? Do you need Dr. Cooper to tell you that? Go much further: make sure your car’s airbags aren’t in retreat, drive less, and when driving, never, under any circumstances, text or talk into a phone you’re holding. And drive defensively, assuming that other drivers in and around you are mentally challenged and aren’t likely to drive sensibly.
9. Avoid sun exposure? What planet are you currently inhabiting? If Earth, this step will be challenging, to say the least. We all need a bit of starlight, but get yours earlier or later in the day whenever possible. Never sunbathe or use a tanning booth and cover up as much as practical.
10. Vaccines? Sure: Annual flu shots, childhood shots, and as needed for travel to hazardous environments. But, put a REAL wellness touch on this: immunize yourself against aggravation. That is, make efforts to avoid associating with negative people, design your environment to support growth and development, and do things that naturally make you feel positive and joyful.
11. Prenatal care? Good idea if you are pregnant. Dr. Cooper could have thought of a more widely applicable step. What if he seeks a job that is challenging and meaningful, in an environment where he associates with positive co-workers? Also, push yourself to become very, very good at what you love to do with the idea that eventually someone or many people will want to make it up to you. Example: writing a regular blog for SeekWellness! (I’m still waiting, you have to be patient).
12. Regular medical exams? Oh, the humanity, the horror. There are too many medical tests in the United States. A substitute step: Become more self-sufficient. Get familiar with medical self-care: Recognize when you need to see a medical professional.
Dr. Cooper’s footsteps seem to assume that most Americans and others lead terrible, self-destructive lifestyles and are unable or unwilling to think and act in ways that improve the chances of a good life. Hmmmm.
Come to think of it, Dr. Cooper might be onto something. Most people could benefit from some of his recommended 12 steps to minimize ill health. However, to go beyond prevention and function exuberantly requires a different set of steps or recommendations.
The reformed steps provided above emphasize the positive: the use of reason and the enjoyment of personal liberties for an exuberant approach to life. Warning signs, such as those described in the latest AWR on Disease and Organ Interest Groups (DOIG), never deliver the higher states of genuine vitality associated with optimal physical and mental well-being.