ALKOL, W.Va. -- Research says people who live in isolated areas, who don't make much money, who don't have a college education and who don't live near a gym or grocery store have a tough time staying fit or losing weight.
But the five core members of the Mud River Volunteer Fire Department -- the Mud River Pound Punchers -- lost an average of 71 pounds apiece in the last six months of 2011. They dramatically chopped their blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels.
"We don't read research. We just do it," said organizer Melisa Ferrell.
Why did the Mud River women succeed when they theoretically weren't supposed to? What can we learn from them? Several West Virginia health experts have theories:
"They're everyday heroes. Nobody told them they couldn't, so they did," said Pat White, director of West Virginia Health Right. "It's attitude, determination and creativity. They're wonderful. They created their own structure.
"They had no gym nearby, so they got a bunch of secondhand equipment and put it in the fire department. They didn't have a walking track, so they used the road. It's a little dangerous, so they wear stripes on their coats, to show up in the dark."
"It's the support," said Gina Wood, director of the state Diabetes Prevention Program. "If only 10 percent of West Virginians would support each other that strongly in becoming more fit, it could make a huge difference in our diabetes rate."
"They keep trying because they know they can prevent diabetes and heart disease with exercise and diet," Wood added. "A lot of West Virginians think if your family has diabetes or heart attacks, you're going to get it, no matter what you do. If you don't believe change is possible, you don't try."
"People say information doesn't help," said Nancy Tompkins, who works for the West Virginia Prevention Research Center. "The Mud River story says otherwise."
Research says support from friends is more powerful than a person's income or education or the fact that the person lives far from a gym or grocery store, Tompkins said. No matter what your income or education is, "If your friends are losing weight, you're more likely to lose too. If they're gaining weight, you're more likely to gain," she said.
"The volunteer fire department gives them a structure and place," said Dr. Bob Walker, Health Sciences chancellor for the state higher education system. "That's really worth thinking about. It doesn't have to be the fire department or a gym. Any place in a community that has space and committed people will work."
"They didn't try to change everything at once," Tompkins noted. "Lifestyle change is hard, so it's a good idea to take things one step at a time, the research says. They aren't counting carbs yet. They're eating what they were eating, but less of it. They cut out soda pop, but some are still smoking. One step at a time."
"They have fun," White said. "Don't forget that. If they weren't having fun, they wouldn't want to come back so often. This is great stress relief. I hope lots of people look at them and think, yeah, my friends and I could do that too."
Sally Hurst, who organizes diabetes prevention and control groups for Marshall University, has trained people in a dozen counties to lead support groups in churches and senior centers. "These women are the kind of people we'd like to recruit and train," she said. "As firefighters, they save other people's lives. Now they're saving their own."
Reach Kate Long at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1798.