Health and Medical

Improve Your Health, Lower Your Taxes
Cooper Proposes New Incentives

By Joey Holleman
Knight Ridder
Monday, April 9, 2001; Page A17

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Texas physician who introduced aerobics and is a candidate to become the nation's next surgeon general is endorsing federal tax breaks to encourage more healthful behavior.

Call it an aerobics-and-veggies deduction.

"We need a financial incentive to encourage Americans to take care of themselves," Kenneth H. Cooper said of the proposed tax deductions.

Cooper, a friend of President Bush and the man credited with coining the term "aerobics," spoke to a conference of health officials Friday.

On Thursday, he was in Washington talking with Bush administration officials about the surgeon general post.

Surgeon General David Satcher intends to serve out his term, which expires in February. Cooper said he has been asked to consider the post at that time.

A Bush spokesman said Friday the administration doesn't comment on appointments.

Cooper said the discussion has reached the point to where he is investigating the divestment of his nonprofit center, the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, to prevent a conflict of interest.

Cooper, 70, is full of ideas to push from the bully pulpit of the surgeon general. He said he presented a 15-point plan to Bush officials, including the tax proposal.

His plan would give tax deductions of up to $1,000 per person for taking care of himself or herself.

Keep your body mass index under 25, and you get a $250 deduction. You would get $250 deductions for keeping your blood pressure under 140 over 90, keeping your cholesterol under 200 and not smoking.

"Up to 73 percent of diseases in this country are the result of an unhealthy lifestyle," Cooper said. "That will only change if people do it themselves."

While the logistics of providing such deductions could prove troublesome, some of his other proposals might be easier to implement.

He would like to see:

• Tax breaks for companies that offer employee wellness programs.

• Tougher mandates on school meal programs -- requiring more fruits and vegetables and less fatty foods.

• Tougher regulation of the vitamin and dietary supplement industry.

He thinks the cost of these proposals would be offset by the improved health and productivity of the country.

"One can grow healthy as one grows older, instead of the reverse," Cooper said.

Cooper's groundbreaking book "Aerobics" came out in 1968 and sparked an exercise boom. Before his book, exercise programs focused on building muscle mass through isometrics -- mostly weightlifting.

He detailed the health benefits of aerobic exercise, which is based on endurance more than strength. Running is the leading aerobic exercise.

Cooper started his medical practice in Dallas in the early 1970s with an unusual attitude. Rather than healing the sick, he would take healthy patients and maintain or improve their conditions.

Thirty years later, his operation has 450 employees and a six-month waiting list for fitness exams.

"We've proven it's cheaper and more effective to maintain good health than to regain it," he said.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company