A Couple of Collective Tons Later, the Citizens of Wellsburg, W.Va., Are No Longer in Fat City

updated 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/20/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

Used to be, the good people of Wells-burg were "famous" for four things—smoking, eating badly, getting fat and getting stressed out while sitting around doing nothing. Times sure have changed.

At the Convenient Mart out on the edge of the West Virginia town of 11,000, boxes of oat bran have appeared atop the cooler that chills huge slabs of blood-red beef. In the bad old days, a sizzling 12-ounce steak topped everybody's menu, but now a lot of customers won't touch the stuff. "I worried at first about that oat bran," says owner Bill Konkle, 48, uneasily eyeing the display. "I'd never heard of the stuff. The supplier was way out of town, and I thought, 'What if I get stuck with 10 cases of oat bran?' "

He needn't have worried. "It walks off the shelves. They put it on or in everything," Konkle says, as if he were talking about pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The objects of Konkle's bemusement are the 1,000-plus participants in the Bayer Wellness Program, a two-year, $4 million experiment in behavior modification aimed at unplugging the arteries of Main Street America. "The aspirin people," as the Bayer company folks are known locally, chose West Virginia because the state has the nation's second-highest rate of deaths from heart disease. Only in Iowa is the situation more dangerous. But the fatty diets, stressful lives and sedentary ways that made Wellsburg Cardiac City may be on the way out. Participants in the program had their six-month checkup in November, and, according to an independent survey by the Wirthlin Group, the town has lost two tons and dropped its average cholesterol level from 221 to 211—a 9 percent decrease in the risk of heart attack (each 1 percent reduction in cholesterol levels reduces by 2 percent your chance of a heart attack, according to the National Institutes of Health). Even if that doesn't yet match the American Heart Association's recommendation of 200 or less, it's a long way from Lardville. Says Wellsburg Mayor Anthony Cipriani, whose own cholesterol level dipped from 209 to 178: "Before the program I didn't even know what cholesterol was, much less how to spell it or what the right level was."

The chief Wellness evangelist is the program's director, exercise physiologist Dr. Bill Reger. On a recent evening at his storefront office in Wellsburg's tidy downtown shopping district, Reger hoisted gallon milk jugs filled with water to demonstrate to a group of 31 program participants that they could afford their own homemade exercise weights. Besides conducting free seminars on exercise, diet, how to stop smoking, and stress management—with help from 150 Wellsburg volunteers—Reger also supervises the distribution of motivational material. As reinforcement, everyone enrolled in the Wellness Program receives a computer printout every six months charting blood pressure, cholesterol level, serum triglycerides (fats in the blood), weight, percentage of body fat, and pulse rate, among other health-risk factors the study tracks. Reger, however, is careful not to come off as chief of the diet police; he recognizes that even the most disciplined participants will cheat now and again. In fact, he advises participants to enjoy their lapses. "It isn't what people do once a month, like having a rich dessert or a thick steak, that affects their health," he says. "It's what they do 365 days a year. If you cheat a little every day, your results are not going to be very good."

Though the citizens of Wellsburg smoked more, carried more weight, ate more high-fat foods and sat on the porch far more than most of the U.S. did, few of them gave much thought to their way of life until Bayer came to town. Suddenly, you could almost hear the consciousnesses being raised. "I was having lunch down at the Western Sizzlin' Steak House with Pearl Bibbo," recalls Jo-ann Leonard, a 58-year-old former nurse. "She was looking around and looking around. Then she said, 'This may be the pot calling the kettle black, Jo-ann, but aren't there a lot of fat people here? Maybe they're right about Wellsburg.' "

Leonard's personal aim is to control her diabetes and high blood pressure, a goal which eluded her in the preprogram years. "Hey, I'm a nurse, but I'm like anyone else," she says. "Even though I might know better than most people what is good and what is bad, I need to be motivated. The program does that. It's helped me to act on what I know: If I don't take charge of my life, nobody else will."

Signs of people doing just that have cropped up all over town. "It used to be that there would be a runner or three out at the track behind the high school," says Donn Wright. "Now, every morning when I go, there are at least a hundred, often more." Every other day in the summer the town pool held a water-aerobics class, with an average attendance of 250. "We meet each other on our walks now, every day," says Annie Schwarz, 70, a former teacher's aide and the official town grandmother. "We ask each other, 'How's the weight? What did the doctor say about your cholesterol?' "

Wright claims that the program has already saved at least one life. "During sign-up a woman passed out," he says. "She was tested and found to have real high blood pressure. She was about to have a stroke! She didn't even know she had a problem. Now she's in the program and doing okay."

Despite the good results, the people of Wellsburg honor the traditional relation ship between dieting and complaining. While fighting to bring down her blood pressure, Katherine Cheeks faces the daily frustration of living with a "couch potato" husband who eats french fries and ice cream and has "perfect blood pressure." Lisa, Cheeks's 16-year-old daughter, is proud that her once-lethargic mom now "does more stuff," but kvetches, "She's noisy. Her TV snack is salad, and it is crunch, crunch, crunch."

As for Pam Schuman, who joined the program on doctor's orders, she says flatly, "I'm mad as hell. I hate having to do it." She'd still be eating red meat and smoking cigarettes in peace, she claims, if it weren't for her helpful impulse to give blood last year at her company blood drive. "I got this letter a couple of weeks later that tells me to get to the doctor, quick," she recalls. "My cholesterol level poses an immediate danger. So I hide the letter, like anyone would, but I make the mistake of telling my mother, who nags me till I go to the doctor." But even Schuman admits to liking "some stuff about it," such as the "three or four" oat bran muffins she eats daily.

Residents of Wellsburg believe the Wellness Program has also put their community in a healthier frame of mind. Like many similar towns in the Ohio River Valley, Wellsburg has suffered massive layoffs from steel-mill and other plant closings that have contributed to the stress that can undermine health. "Wellsburg has been kinda down, you know?" says Schwarz. "The program has picked us up a bit. We're proud."

One of the reasons Bayer chose Wellsburg was the townspeople's history of offering neighborly support to one another, founded on what Dr. Reger calls a very healthy spiritual life. After the mills closed, folks looked out for each other. Bags of groceries and boxes of clothes materialized on porches. Checks and $10 bills appeared in mailboxes around town. "No one had to ask who needed what," says former resident Jane Miller. "We all just knew."

Reger is counting on Wellsburg's volunteer spirit to keep the program going once Bayer leaves town in 1990. People seem to know they have everything to gain, especially when they reflect on past losses. Joann Leonard's husband, John, the town's postmaster, died in 1981 of a heart attack, a stroke and diabetes. Says Leonard, unable to hold back her tears: "I know, I just know for certain, that if the two of us could have been on this program when we were younger, I would have him here still."

—Montgomery Brower, and Jane Beckwith in Wellsburg

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