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t was a latter-day hunting and gathering expedition, a quest for fiber and cheap protein, set to the strains of the Muzak at the Super Stop & Shop in Hadley. Shopping carts at the ready, the questers warmed up next to that modern symbol of salubrity, the salad bar, in the northeast corner of the store. In a few minutes, as the clock ticked, they would sprint through the aisles filling their baskets with healthful specimens of breads, cereals, grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, fat, and two items from that great American food group, snacks. All they needed now was a few words of inspiration from their leader.

''You want to stick to the perimeter,'' advised Stella L. Volpe, Ph.D. tracing, with an animated arm, an arc around the store's produce- and dairy-rich edges. "Watch out for the 'specials' at the ends of the aisles, though," the UMass nutrition professor warned. "Companies pay big bucks to have them there right at eye level.

"Remember, fruit is cheaper than a bag of chips," she added. "Coupons force you to buy things you don't want, so only use them if you buy an item regularly. Is anyone hungry? I hope not, because you really should not shop when you're hungry.''

As the teams shot off, Volpe called after them, ''Look at unit-pricing for bargains!''

As her shoppers made their way around the store, the voluble Volpe explained why a group of plumpish professionals were thus engaged on their lunch hour, and what she was doing there with them. This was part of a study, financed by the NordicTrack execise equipment company, to see how small changes in lifestyle affect weight, fitness, cholesterol levels, and overall health, and how moderately overweight, previously sedentary adults are best motivated to make those changes. Over the course of nearly two years, Volpe will follow the progress of three groups of such people. The ''diet-only'' volunteers are encouraged to make changes in their eating habits, but not to add to their usually paltry exercise regimens. The ''exercise-only'' people commit to a supervised regimen on the NordicTrack cross-country ski machine, but don't receive the nutritional coaching. A third, ''diet plus-exercise'' group gets both.

For some of these seekers, the Stop & Shop trek would be a walk in the park. For others, who had spent a lifetime making the snack-and-soda aisle the first stop on any shopping expedition, it would require the mindfulness of a disciple. The first team to return, in a record-breaking time of five minutes, forty-five seconds, proudly displayed a ready-bake roll of Snackwell chocolate chip cookies, a Swiss Miss Fat-Free Chocolate pudding snack, boneless chicken breast, instant couscous, store-brand shredded wheat, safflower oil, a gallon of skim milk, a bunch of green bananas, and a loaf of sourdough bread whose fiber content Volpe praised. (While the dessert fare might worry a purist, Volpe's goal is not the eradication of sweets but their integration into an overall healthy eating pattern.) The last team, straggling back after a luxurious fourteen minutes, twenty seconds, had, among other things, ''European grain loaf" whose appeal lay partly in the fact that, in one searcher's words, ''all the ingredients are things you can read.'' (Letting them down gently, Volpe gave the unappetizing but valuable warning that, despite its wholesome-sounding name, the bread's pale color probably means the fiber comes from a common filler made from tree cellulose.)

The go-team Volpe was recommended to design and conduct this $90,000 study for NordicTrack by her co-investigator at UMass, Patty Freedson of the exercise science department. Freedson had worked on product testing for the company for close to a decade. Coming to UMass in 1994, Volpe had behind her a shining record of research: on chromium and weight loss, on iron and thyroid function in athletes. And nailing down data on the relationship of exercise to health is one of the hottest areas of industry-funded research right now, according to NordicTrack's Cynthia Bennett, who works closely with Volpe. The company will present Volpe's initial findings at next spring's conference of the American College of Sports Medicine, Bennett says.

Volpe explains that the easy part of the study was recruiting volunteers. The protocol called for moderately overweight people leading relatively sedentary lives: no problem in the car-and computer-centered 1990s. A newspaper ad drew responses from more than 300 people; from these Volpe chose ninety of like body-mass index. The perks were enticing: For eighteen months of participation, volunteers would get their own ski machine (a $600 item) and a shot at forever changing their metabolic patterns. For the diet-only and the diet-plus-exercise groups, Volpe would teach a twelve- week course on the how, when and why ­ not just the guilt-inducing "what" ­ of healthy eating. Meanwhile, the exercise-only people, who progressed over the course of several months from three brief sessions a week on the NordicTrack to five longer ones, would ideally move from seconding Dorothy Parker's philosophy ­ ''I like having exercised'' ­ to making physical exertion an unquestioned part of their day.

But volunteers had no way of knowing the best perk of all: the Stella factor, the chance to work with Volpe herself. One volunteer jokes that she doesn't see how any findings can be generalized to the broader population, since the broader population doesn't get to meet Stella. Whether standing before a class or working one-on-one, the thirty-four-year-old Pennsylvanian is as irresistible as the desserts she encourages her participants to enjoy in moderation; not surprisingly, people adore her.

Welcoming a reporter like a relative to her office in Chenoweth Lab one afternoon last fall, Volpe insisted on offering the most comfortable chair: hers. Outside the room's single window a leaning horse-chestnut tree was turning yellow; inside, interspersed between the biochemistry and nutrition tomes she amassed while earning degrees at Pittsburgh and Berkeley, are tokens of love given and received. A poster-size collage of magazine images and adjectives sums up, for the students who made it, Volpe's qualities. (Among the sentiments are "One Hot Tamale," "How Sweet It Is," "A Burst of Joy and Energy", "Share Hugs," and "Leo" (Stella is one). An abundance of snapshots of alert-looking German Shepherds, lolling on the furniture like children, attest to the dogs, past and present, with whom Volpe and husband Gary have shared their lives.

Come to think of it ­ it occurrs to a visitor noting her howling-dog earrings and ubiquitous dog calendars ­ there is something undeniably canine about Volpe: a hearty other-orientation that endears without ingratiating. She has one of those great, character-lending gaps between her front teeth, a smattering of freckles on her olive-tan skin, and her hair, parted just off-center, forms a feathery cap of brown. Her eyes glow the same warming brown, behind wire-framed glasses with sidepieces glinting in shades of pink and purple, as she carries on with trademark loquacity.

In fact, watching her hands fly around and listening to her sandpapery voice, you wonder if Volpe burns up most of her calories up in enthusiasm. But she explains that it was growing up the baby among four athletic offspring of Italian-born parents that imparted the drive. She discovered running at fourteen, participated in marathons and biathlons, and is still devoted to her five-to-ten miles a day. A vegetarian, she has been known to apologize to her students for not being able to give first-hand knowledge about meat. Laughing at her own high-octane addiction to fitness, she says, ''My friends tease me that I can't really understand my students until I stop exercising, eat at MacDonald's every day, and drive around the parking lot twenty times 'til I find the closest spot.''

Volpe is not pedantic, just passionate about getting her message of healthy living across. For the NordicTrack study, she has typed up sheafs of handouts on everything from fats, good and bad, to how not to backslide. She ''just cringes,'' she says, at the use of the word "diet," those four letters that turn one of life's most pleasurable features into an internal tribunal. And she is endlessly forgiving of lapses by her subjects, espousing the ''BTN'' theory that even a little exercise or a little wholesome food is ''Better-Than-Nothing.''

By the end of the first year, volunteers will have been tested five times, with changes measured by blood pressure, underwater weight, a fitness test, and blood work. Changes in blood lipids ­ fats ­ are perhaps the most telling indication of overall health, said Volpe. ''I do not tell them there's a weight they should go down to. There are plenty of overweight people who have great blood lipid levels,'' she says reassuringly. ''Even small changes have been shown to make metabolic improvements.''

Volpe declines to give even a sliver of early feedback from her study, saying she didn't want to bias her volunteers in any way before the final testing in January 1999. But volunteers report their efforts on behalf of science ­ those calories eschewed, that huffing and puffing across the imaginary snowfields of the gymnasium ­ have paid off on a personal level already. ''It's not about denial, it's about balance,'' says Randy Sailer, the UMass telecommunications director who is twenty-five pounds lighter since becoming a diet-plus-exercise volunteer in January. ''I'm still eating steak, but instead of a twelve-ounce, it's a six-ounce steak ­ with vegetables.'' Carolyn LaFlamme, whose days as an Amherst real estate agent used to grind her to the bone, says she is amazed at how much energy she has now. ''The weight is just falling off me,'' said LaFlamme, who has shed twenty pounds so far in the diet-and-exercise group. ''The end of the day comes too soon now.''

That's the kind of eureka that Volpe lives to hear. "What I hope society gets is that people can make lifestyle changes at any point in life," she says earnestly. "What would make me happy is to see that the people in the study have continued with the changes. To have someone come up a year from now and say, 'Stella, I still exercise every day.' They made a commitment to a lifestyle change. They deserve to be congratulated."

There's just one lifestyle change she forbids her charges to make. "I tell them," she says with her gap-toothed grin, "they're not allowed to use the NordicTrack as a clothes rack."


 Little shop for bodies

Late Friday afternoon in the basement of Totman Gymnasium, there isn't an unused piece of equipment in this room packed thick with machines and striving bodies. Against a far mirrored wall, studying the tension and release of his thigh muscles in the reflection, a young man steadily pedals a stationary bicycle, his diligence marked by the expanding ring of sweat on his T-shirt. A tall girl, all ribcage and midriff, stretches out on a floor-mat while waiting a turn on the Stairmaster. In another corner, a young woman works her abs to the private beat of the Walkman orbing her head.

Welcome to the Body Shop, the on-campus fitness center promoting total health. Standing in the doorway, the creator of this scene ­ and four others like it around campus ­ looks around with the fatherly gleam of a parent watching the child he's coached execute a smooth play.

Actually, Frank Rife quickly points out, he did not create the Body Shop, he inherited it nine years ago, when he began heading up the Wellness Lab, a traveling clinic offering health screening to corporations. Before the exercise science professor took over, the Body Shop had been a clamorous, poorly lit room in Boyden, visited mostly by bodybuilder types. Rife and his graduate assistants plushed things up with carpeting and mirrors, and went on to open this spa in Totman and three more in Gorman, Webster, and the nineteenth floor of Washington Tower. The gyms are their own little chain, self-funding and employing sixty to seventy students who may very well go on to take their places in the burgeoning fitness field.

In opening the Body Shops in the late eighties, Rife was anticipating an explosion in fitness, and he was right. The young flock to the gym in hopes of achieving the beauty ideal planted in their minds by the media they grew up with. Older members come to do right by their hearts and hips. But Rife envisioned a place that went beyond mere body sculpture to include the growing awareness of diet and stress management. Thus, the Body Shop is also where members can get their cholesterol screened, learn about the best running shoe, get great recipes, or attend a talk by an eating-disorders specialist. "The whole objective has been to get people to adopt a healthy lifestyle," says Rife, his big Lone Star drawl still filling a room after twenty-four years at UMass.

Thinking big appears to be a product of Rife's upbringing; his mother was so determined that her son be born a Texan that she took a fast train home from a visit to Illinois just in time to deliver. Rife is every bit the San Antonian she hoped to create: he swaggers, in an agreeable way, even when sitting in his Totman office, which is decorated with posters and bumperstickers proclaiming the hegemony of his native state. He has a tawny athlete's face, long tanned hands that played no small part in his competing with the U-S. Modern Pentathlon Team at the 1968 Olympics. At fifty-one, he gets his energy from biking, swimming, hiking, running ­ and working out in the Body Shop, of course.

How far will the Body Shop phenomenon expand? Can UMass look forward to the chance to sweat in every residence hall? For now, Rife is concentrating on doubling the size of the shop in Boyden. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.

"The demand is there,'' he says. ''People want this stuff.''