WELLSBURG Va. — Used to be, when the end of the workweek rolled around, you could find Charlotte Lohr having a snack on her front porch. The most exertion Michael O'Brien could manage was watching "Wall Street Week."
Nowadays, Friday night means water aerobics class, where they pump out underwater leg lifts to the beat of Madonna's "Like a Prayer."
Grocer Bill Konkle is selling oat bran as fast as he can stock it, and Caruso's Cucina Italiana restaurant has added whole-wheat pasta with vegetable sauce to its regular menu of high-fat Italian dishes.
Something funny has happened to this heart-disease-prone little town since the Bayer Aspirin people showed up about a year ago. Now halfway through Bayer's two-year "Wellness Program," it has been stricken by a veritable epidemic of healthy living.
Bayer is spending $4 million to prove that it is possible to educate and inspire an entire community to improve its diet, to exercise, to quit smoking and to reduce stress.
The program includes regular health screenings, lectures and exercise classes. All are open to anyone who lives in the county and most are free.
"The big thing has been to educate them to the benefits (of exercise and a healthy diet), and then to provide them the means and then to reinforce that," said Bill Reger, the physiologist and former state legislator who runs the program.
'Changed the Whole Town'
"It has changed the whole town," Konkle said. "You look out the door at 6 a.m. and you see whole groups of people walking."
About 740 of the initial 1,000 volunteers showed up for their one-year screening. At a halfway-point celebration last weekend, Reger announced that they had lost an average of 4.2 pounds each. The typical cholesterol count had fallen about six points, enough to reduce heart attack risk by about 5%. And almost half of those who used to smoke say they have quit.
For the record, Bayer does not push the benefits of aspirin as part of the program. However, the Wellsburg experiment has brought the company loads of publicity, including news coverage as far away as New Zealand.
High Heart Disease Rate
Despite its name, Wellsburg had plenty of room for improving its health. This factory community of 11,000 on the Ohio River was pretty typical of West Virginia, the state that has the nation's second-highest rate of heart disease.
When Bayer signed up volunteers to be screened in May, 1988, it found that two-thirds of them had cholesterol counts over the maximum acceptable level of 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood, one-fifth were smokers and three-fourths did not exercise. The average participant was 30 pounds overweight.
But Wellsburg also had something else that Bayer wanted: a closeness and gung-ho community spirit, said Anthony J. Cipriani, Wellsburg's mayor and the owner of a television store. Cipriani noted that when the state champion Brooke High School Bruins play a football game on the road, the whole town empties out to follow them, even if it means driving more than three hours.
Many here say that they were shocked to discover what bad shape they were in. Frances Deuley's cholesterol count was an alarmingly high 265.
"I was living on eggs," the 70-year-old widow sighed. "I thought that I couldn't live if I didn't have eggs for breakfast. Now I've gone to oat bran."
And twice a week, arthritis permitting, Deuley slips into shorts and sneakers to join about a half-dozen other silver-haired fitness devotees for geriatric aerobics.
The result: Her cholesterol count dropped to 203 in the first six months of the program, she said, although she fears that backsliding during a vacation nudged it upward again.
Others have taken smaller steps. The mayor, for example, has tried to cut back on sweets. "My wife loves the skin on the chicken," he added. "The first time she cooked chicken without the skin, it nearly broke her heart."
At Caruso's, they were pretty skeptical when Reger urged them to try making a whole-wheat pasta without egg yolk.
"You should have seen the first time we tried it. It was awful," said Lena Caruso McGowan.
Although the new dish is not nearly as big a seller as Caruso's spaghetti with meat sauce, "people seem to like it. I haven't had any complaint about it yet," she said.
Not All Converts
Of course, not everyone who signed up for the program has been converted. "I haven't been doing much," Bernard DiNardo Sr. confessed as he took another drag on his cigarette outside the American Legion.
"We haven't lost any business," added Georgette Kulin, manager of the state-owned liquor store.
And others said that some of their friends have had just about enough of all this talk of lipoproteins, triglycerides and blood pressure.
"They say, 'Oh, be quiet, I'm tired of hearing all that cholesterol stuff,' " said Lohr, a homemaker and grandmother of three who has lost 41 pounds and hopes to shed 10 more.
But she confided: "Usually, they are the girls who are too heavy."
O'Brien, owner of a shoe store, said that the town already has begun to consider how it will carry on its health kick after Bayer closes down the Wellness Program a year from now.
"There's a movement afoot to try to continue this program," he said. "If we don't, we're foolish."