Residents have been counting calories and comparing waistlines for three months, shedding thousands of pounds and hundreds of inches in an experiment aimed at improving the health of rural Americans.

"My neighbor lost 32 pounds and I've lost 14," said Odessa Mace, 62, one of 1,000 participants in the two-year, $4 million study. "I don't eat red meat anymore and I watch my butter. No more salt or bacon either."Mace and others in the study had their blood pressure, pulse, cholesterol and weight checked last week in their first health exam since the experiment began in May. Participants will receive a more extensive physical and blood tests in November.

At initial screenings, the average participant was 30 pounds overweight and three-quarters reported they never exercised. A substantial number also had high blood pressure and cholesterol readings of more than the desired 200-or-less level.

All that has begun to change.

"I'm out here three nights a week," Mace said during a break in her water aerobics class at the municipal pool.

"When we started it was just the thin people. Then a few of the heavier people came. Now people who are fat don't mind putting on a swimming suit and coming out."

Organizers of the study said they chose Wellsburg, a Northern Panhandle mill town of about 4,000, because of its size and because the state registered the highest obesity rate in the country at 24 percent in a 1986 federal study. The same study also found nearly a third of West Virginians smoke.

West Virginia is second only to Iowa in the annual death rate from heart disease, according to Dr. David Heydinger, the state health director.

If the program is a success, Wellsburg residents will be slimmer, smoke less and have lower cholesterol levels and the sponsors plan to make the cardiovascular "wellness" program available to communities nationwide.

"Most people are pleased by the results they're seeing," said Lisa Booher, coordinator of the program. The project is underwritten by The Bayer Co. and Glenbrook Laboratories, the aspirin-maker's New York-based parent company.

"They're seeing their cholesterol reduced. They've lost pounds. Their clothes are looser."

Bayer officials said the study stems from the company's interest in preventing cardiovascular disease. Research has indicated that aspirin may help prevent heart attacks.

Kim Vollmer, who supervised the screening, said most participants improved in some way. Those who didn't were given "a pat on the back" with exhortations to "hang in there."

"It's only been three months," Vollmer said. "Everyone is different. It may take some people six months or even nine months to notice a difference."

One of those who saw little change, despite his move toward a healthier lifestyle, was George Cree, who added two pounds to his 275-pound, 5-feet, 11-inch frame.

"My blood pressure is up a little bit, too," Cree said. "I feel like I'm going to grow wings or scales because of all the fish and chicken I eat.

"Unfortunately, I haven't changed the amount I eat. If I can just give up the sweets, I'd be much better off."

Evidence of the fitness frenzy is everywhere. Tennis rackets, running shoes and warm-up suits have replaced dresses and men's clothing in the windows of some shops.

Joggers have run students off the local high school track for early morning and dinner sessions and restaurants have altered their menus to accommodate calorie counters.

"They're ordering fewer eggs and more cottage cheese now," said Stella Hone, owner of Stella's Goodie House, a local restaurant. "When they do order eggs, they eat the whites and leave the yolks."

Hone brags that she "adds no salt, whatsoever," to her fare and uses only polyunsaturated vegetable oil.

"We're still selling a lot of our french fries, though," Hone said. "I guess some people don't care."

More than 1,500 residents asked to participate in the program. About 100 have dropped out because of pregnancy, a move or apathy, said Areline Smith, office manager of the program.

"We've still got a waiting list of more than 400 people who want to join the study," Smith said. "We're not having any trouble finding people to replace those who leave."