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Monday, 28 November 2011

A Hard Turn: Big-Rig Drivers Focus on Getting Healthy

But once he ballooned to 405 pounds, he knew he had to make a change. So last year, Mr. Williams, 58, did something all too rare for someone in his profession: He embarked on a diet and exercise program.

The six-pack of Coca-Cola he drank each day? Gone. The hamburgers, chips and chocolate he relished? No more. Today, he drinks a protein shake mixed with ice water or soy milk for breakfast, nibbles cantaloupe and red grapes, and makes “sandwiches” with thinly sliced meat and cheese but no bread. He keeps a fold-up bike in his truck and zips around rest areas on his breaks.

His weight is down to 335 pounds, and he’s managed to reduce the amount of blood pressure medication he takes. “I rarely, maybe once a week, even go into a truck stop,” said Mr. Williams, who has been navigating an 18-wheeler for the last 30 years.

Mr. Williams’s predicament is hardly unique. On the road for weeks on end, with the sorts of diets that make nutritionists apoplectic, the nation’s truckers are in pretty bad shape. Now, beset by rising insurance costs and desperate to ensure their drivers pass government health tests, trucking companies and industry groups are working hard to persuade road warriors to change their habits.

It’s a long haul, so to speak. Eighty-six percent of the estimated 3.2 million truck drivers in the United States are overweight or obese, according to a 2007 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

“Obesity is a terrible problem in the trucking industry,” said Brett Blowers, director of marketing and development for the Healthy Trucking Association of America, an industry organization in Montgomery, Ala.

A few years ago, Mr. Blowers’s group conducted a blood pressure screening of more than 2,000 drivers at an annual truck show. “We sent 21 directly to the emergency room, and one of them had a heart attack on the way there,” he recalled.

It’s a problem not just for truckers, but for anyone who shares the road with them. In 2010, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers accounted for 13 percent of all fatal occupational injuries, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A 2007 report from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found that 87 percent of crashes involving truckers stemmed to some degree from driver error. Twelve percent of these cases were because the driver was asleep, had a heart attack, was in diabetic shock or had some other health problem.

“Of the accidents that are preventable, I’d say about 10 to 25 percent, if not higher, were from drivers who were tired, had sleep apnea or were not physically fit,” said Chad Hoppenjan, director of transportation safety services at Cottingham and Butler, an insurance broker in Dubuque, Iowa.

The United States Department of Transportation requires drivers to pass a certifying medical exam every two years. Drivers are checked for severe heart conditions, high blood pressure and respiratory maladies, including sleep disorders.

While the statistics are bleak, they’re not especially surprising. Driving is a sedentary activity. Most truckers are paid by the mile, so they tend to squeeze out every last second of the 11 hours they’re allowed on the road in a 24-hour period.

“Some days I’ve driven 600 miles and didn’t even stop,” said Barb Waugh, 58, of Fairfax, S.D., one of an estimated 190,000 female truckers. In a typical week she logs 2,500 to 4,000 miles. ”I feel like a marshmallow because I don’t get to exercise,” said Ms. Waugh, who weighs about 300 pounds.

Routines that keep other Americans healthy — hitting the gym, cooking at home, scheduling a doctor’s appointment — are nearly impossible, since drivers are rarely in one place for more than a day or two. The only exercise for many is pressing the gas pedal; most don’t load and unload cargo.

When they do leave their vehicles, it’s usually at truck stops and fast-food restaurants where nearly every option is greasy or fatty or served up in calorie-rich buffets — which some truckers say stands for “Big Ugly Fat Fellows Eating Together.”

“Everything’s fried, fried, fried — chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, chili, burritos, corn dogs,” said Bill Johnson, 50, of Lubbock, Tex., a 25-year industry veteran.

Jill Garcia, 50, a driver from San Antonio who is obese and has sleep apnea and hypertension, said: “I swear, the truck stops have a candy-a-holic at their corporate offices. You can get two king-size bars for $3. I got four packs of M&M’s for a buck.”

Until recently, few in the transportation industry cared to tackle its health issues. “When you tried to talk to someone to connect the dots, they looked at you like you had three heads,” said Bob Perry, founder of Rolling Strong, which offers health and wellness programs for truckers.

Now transportation carriers, industry organizations and even truck stops are unrolling initiatives to help truckers slim down, shape up and improve their health. Employers are holding health seminars, building on-site gyms, bringing in nutritionists and fitness trainers, and offering financial incentives to employees who stop smoking or lose weight. Some drivers are cooking in their rigs, walking or bike riding around truck stops, blogging about their experiences at sites like and, and writing books.

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