How aerobics changed the life of Arthur Blank long before he bought the Atlanta Falcons

Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics, have been close friends for about 20 years. Courtesy of Arthur Blank

Arthur Blank was in his 30s when a doctor gave him essentially a mandate, changing his life.

Long before Blank became the billionaire owner of the Atlanta Falcons and founder of The Home Depot, he worked for a company called Daylin. Part of his role as an executive was to fly from Georgia to San Diego for a physical at the Scripps Clinic. As he went through the process of the physical, the last meeting was with a cardiologist.

Blank knew his family history. His father died of a heart attack at age 44 when Blank was 15. His brother had a heart attack by the time he was in the doctor's office in the mid-1970s. He had been a smoker.

The doctor was blunt.

"[He] said, 'Listen, you've got some strikes against you and you can eliminate all those strikes, but you need to do some things a little bit differently in terms of your lifestyle,'" Blank told ESPN. "Looking back, that was a great point of reflection in my own life."

The doctor told Blank to pick up the book "Aerobics," published in 1968 by Dr. Kenneth Cooper. Blank bought the book at the San Diego airport. By the time he returned home to Griffin, Georgia, he'd finished the entire thing.

That moment altered everything. It made Blank more serious about his own health and how he approached day-to-day living. He eventually became one of the world's richest men and developed a relationship with Cooper and The Cooper Institute, the nonprofit founded in 1970 to study Cooper's belief in preventive medicine.

And on Tuesday, Blank and his foundation continued his repayment of Cooper's words and teachings, giving a $15 million grant to The Cooper Institute to continue its research focusing on healthy living and aging through preventive medicine Cooper helped construct and Blank has lived by.

"The world is really paying attention to what we're doing now," Cooper said. "And I give great credit to Arthur Blank, because he predicted that years ago, long before I had the foggiest idea we'd be doing what we're doing today."

When Blank landed back in Georgia, he started his life-altering changes by doing the Cooper Test, which included seeing how far he could run in 12 minutes. Along with his wife at the time, they ran on the streets of Griffin. Blank ran a mile.

Not terrible, but not nearly where he was when he was a high school athlete who ran track and played baseball and football. He'd allowed himself to get somewhat out of shape. Carried a few more pounds than he wanted to.

That 12-minute run began a love affair with running -- well before it became a common practice for so many who want to stay in shape and improve their health. Aerobics, which began as a phrase created by Cooper in 1966, turned into a book that sold more than 30 million copies and was published in over 40 languages. It became a guiding point for Blank, and so many others, for decades.

For over 30 years, Blank averaged running 35 miles a week -- waking up "as early as [he] needed to get up" to make sure he got his mileage in. Some days he'd be on the track solo in the dark. Other times, he'd be running on the streets or at his second home in Hilton Head, South Carolina, jogging on flat bike paths.

"It was like getting up and brushing my teeth," Blank said. "It was something that I had to do."

Blank said the fastest 10-kilometer race he ran was sub-7 minutes. His best half-marathon was a 7:13 pace and his fastest full marathon was just under an 8-minute pace, often training for races running along the Chattahoochee River. A Queens, New York, native, he ran the first of three New York City marathons in 1982 in 3 hours, 35 minutes, 29 seconds (an 8:13 pace) at age 40. At age 44, he ran the 1986 NYC marathon in 3:29:10.

Running became his substitute for mainlining coffee like so many other adults in high-power industries. As he built The Home Depot, he made sure to continue to find ways to run - and on page 14 of his book, "Built From Scratch," published in 1999, he mentioned how he got started running because of reading Cooper's book and the looks he'd get at the time.

"People would probably think I was running away from something or running to something," Blank said. "What's this guy doing? Running was not a very popular thing at that point.

"It obviously has become very popular and the whole notion of aerobic movement and how important that is to our health and to our longevity."

Shortly after the book was published, someone sent a copy to Cooper in Dallas. Cooper called Blank. Offered him a chance to come out to his clinic and institute in Texas for a physical. Blank accepted the invitation.

He has been a patient at Cooper's clinic since, getting physicals there for years, including last week.

"So that's how it all started," Cooper said. "And he's been a fantastic supporter. But the thing that prompted him to support us with this great contribution is that he felt from the beginning that we had an opportunity to do something that might have an impact on the world."

The science of preventive medicine which Cooper has worked with for over half a century has led to multiple books and the establishment of programs worldwide to help people get healthier -- including the 12-minute fitness test Blank initially used -- and to try to live longer, more fulfilling lives.

Cooper helped influence the training of the 1970 Brazilian national soccer team which, led by Pele, won the World Cup. He became friends with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, who has served on the board of the Cooper Institute since 1980.

The Cooper Center's Longitudinal Study, started in 1970, has become the largest cardiorespiratory study in the world. Over 115,000 people have participated, including taking the well-known treadmill exercise stress test as part of the preventive health exam. The study was well under way and proven by the time Blank and Cooper met in 2000 and when Blank joined the Cooper Institute's board in 2003.

The book Cooper wrote inspired millions of people to start jogging or take up other aerobic exercise -- Cooper said their last figure they took, in 2017, had over 55 million Americans taking up jogging. His study looked at how exercise -- particularly at the end of the day -- helped decrease stress. Exercise helped prevent high blood pressure. All things that are taken as fact now were things Cooper pushed as a part of the fitness revolution he helped create.

That preventive medicine program, through studies Cooper and his team have done, has shown less of a risk of Alzheimer's dementia, chronic kidney disease, congestive heart failure and, Cooper said, 40% less health care costs from ages 65-75, all through the benefit of exercise. Cooper himself, at age 90, still walks and exercises regularly.

"Exercise is not a panacea," Cooper said. "But it's the foundation of any good preventive medicine program."

It was how Blank decided to live his life.

Blank can't run anymore. Years of the constant grind on his knees -- and three knee surgeries -- retired him from the racing life he once lived. He's admittedly not a good swimmer, so that's out. But every day, Blank, at age 79, makes it a point of doing something active.

It has been part of his life for decades, so even though he can't run marathons anymore, he's still walking or doing Pilates or lifting weights. Because while running or jogging has become the main focus of so much of aerobic exercise, anything will do.

The man who wrote the book who ended up changing a future business magnate's life have become friends. More than that, actually. Blank invited Cooper to go to his ranch in Montana.

"It's just a wonderful friendship. He's more like a relative than he is a friend. And he says, I love your wife and I said, 'I do, too,'" Cooper said. "And I said that there's almost a love relationship. That type of love just, a family relationship I would say.

"He feels that way and I do, too."

It's a connection Cooper and Blank both value highly, both because of the lives they've led and the way they've been able to function through them. Blank said they've "been through a lot of life" together -- a life Cooper helped fix, one he had no idea about for decades.

Blank was essentially a breathing testimony to the work Cooper had done. So he became passionate about spreading his message. About telling his own story in hopes of forwarding Cooper's work and helping others.

"I could see the difference. My thinking was clearer, my energy level, my weight," Blank said. "Everything you would want to measure, particularly given the history of heart disease in my family. It was a real concern.

"I'm a living example, I think, of why those kind of things are really important and they make sense to do."