For the health of it

by James Menzies

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – Siphiwe Baleka was a world-class athlete before deciding to embark on a career as a professional driver with Prime Inc.

“I’d never been overweight,” he recalled, when speaking at a recent Driving for Profit seminar on health and wellness. “I put on 15 pounds in the first two months. I got scared. I realized if I didn’t take responsibility for my health, I was going to end up like the statistics say: overweight.”

Baleka began developing a health and fitness plan specifically designed for professional drivers like himself, reflecting all the challenges drivers face, including an inconsistent schedule and nomadic lifestyle.

“I had to figure out what was the most effective, least time-consuming way to stay in shape on the road. I spent three years developing a program that any truck driver could do. I’m not asking you to grill asparagus in your truck,” he said.

Baleka’s fitness regimen can be done in as little as 15 minutes per day. Prime drivers are given a DVD outlining the workout and are also offered the opportunity to participate in a 13-week health and wellness program that teaches them how to exercise and eat well while on the road. There’s a $300 cost for the program, which drivers pay up-front and is reimbursed by the company upon completion.

The program, said Baleka, was built with the realization that drivers wouldn’t be prepared to radically adjust their eating habits. For example, drivers who like to eat a footlong sub are advised to order a six-inch with double the meat; it’s just as filling with half the carbs. Carbohydrates are a major culprit in weight gain for truckers, Baleka said. Carbs are energy, which if not burned off immediately is stored as fat, leading to “trucker gut.”

The best approach to healthy eating is to start with a breakfast and eat small portions of high-protein foods frequently throughout the day, Baleka said. Avoid carbs whenever possible unless you’ll be exercising soon after.

Truck drivers are predisposed to gain weight because of the nature of their jobs, Baleka noted. A sedentary lifestyle causes hormonal changes that disrupt the body’s ability to regulate hunger, meaning drivers often feel hungry all the time or never, with both scenarios leading to overeating and, ultimately, weight gain.

“The average person will say (truckers) eat too much and are lazy,” he said. “That’s not true. There are biochemical and hormonal changes as a result of the occupation they are not even aware of.”

In the US and Canada, more carriers are beginning to offer health and wellness programs for their drivers. As the driver population ages, progressive carriers realize they need to help their drivers stay healthy. Asked why companies should take an interest in the health of their workers, Dave Dietrick, vice-president of human resources with Erb Group said simply: “It’s the right thing to do. We have to be involved. We have to provide programs for them to become healthier.”

Erb has had an employee health and wellness plan for nearly five years, which started after company founder Vernon Erb suffered a heart attack and began discussing driver health with hospital staff during his stay at St. Mary’s Hospital. Upon his release, Erb partnered with the hospital to develop an employee health program.

Brian Kurtz Trucking became proactive about driver health when the Truckload Carriers Association announced its first Weight Loss Showdown. The program involved support from the Lindora Clinic, which provided a weight loss blueprint and then gave personal advice and support to drivers and office staff who participated in the 10-week challenge.

General manager Trevor Kurtz admitted he was initially wary of broaching the subject with drivers, unsure of how they’d react.
“I wasn’t sure how it would be received,” he said. “I threw it out there during a driver meeting. There were 100 guys sitting there and more than 20 put their hands up right away; some guys I didn’t expect. They knew we cared and there was an overwhelming response.”

Interest in the TCA Weight Loss Showdown was so high, that Kurtz formed two teams of 10: an official team that took part in the competition and another that participated internally. Brian Kurtz Trucking ensured the drivers had the tools necessary to succeed, including fridges in all the trucks.

“Every truck has a fridge in it and our guys fill the fridge before they leave. We have to cross the border, so that became a hurdle we had to work on. They’d leave a little earlier so they could stop at a grocery store when they cross the border and fill their fridge,” Kurtz said. The competition built camaraderie among drivers and before long, Kurtz said, they could be heard at the terminal comparing shopping spots along their routes.

It’s also possible to eat healthy at truck stops and restaurants, Kurtz noted.

“It’s picking healthy choices,” he said. “There’s always something on the menu that’s going to be good for you. If you ask them not to deep-fry the chicken breast, they don’t have to.”

Erb is currently compiling a healthy cookbook of recipes that can be prepared before or during a trip. Those 150 recipes are now being evaluated by a team of University of Guelph nutritionists, who’ll rate their nutritional value.

“It provides them with some options,” Dietrick said. “Our goal is to have that out to all employees this year, so they can make those recipes to take out on the road.”

Baleka said drivers are advised to eat breakfast, and small meals every three hours when driving, which may seem counter-intuitive. But Kurtz and Dietrick said they’ve both followed the advice themselves and found it worked, eliminating late-evening food cravings.

Eating well is important, but so too is exercising. In developing his workout regimen, Baleka said he realized it had to be fast and simple if truckers were to buy in.

“The further you have to go from your truck, the less likely you will be to work out,” he acknowledged. “The longer it takes to clean up afterwards, the less likely you’ll be to work out. And it can’t be the kind of thing where you have to do it every day at 7 o’clock. I learned you can get the benefit of a one-hour workout in 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes is long enough to be effective for weight loss, but short enough and portable so you can fit it in anywhere, anytime. As a driver, you don’t know when you’ll have time, but you know you’ll have time.”

The 15-minute workout is vigorous, Baleka admitted, and Kurtz pointed out the word “vigorous” has different meanings to different drivers.

“Vigorous for one guy may be walking from the back of the truck stop parking lot to the front. We have guys who, by the time they’ve hooked up and done a circle check, you’d think they’d run a marathon. As long as they pick it up week by week – park a little further away, walk a little faster, walk around the truck a few more times,” Kurtz said.

The company also encourages drivers to get in shape by paying lumper fees to the drivers themselves if they choose to handbomb their own freight.

Equally important is to have a “cheerleader” in the office to offer support and encouragement. Kurtz keeps a scale by the door. When drivers who are participating in a weight loss program return to the terminal, they hop on the scale and their results are entered into a spreadsheet.

Dietrick said getting drivers’ families involved is also important. Erb offers the programs to drivers’ families and Brian Kurtz Trucking sends home information packages for family members.

Fleets also can help out by ensuring the necessary tools are available. Kurtz said his company has installed bike racks on some drivers’ trucks. Prime offers foldable bikes that can be carried in the cab and encourages drivers to log their miles using a smartphone app. Some of the most avid cyclists in the fleet have biked close to 350 miles in a single month during their travels, Baleka said.

Once a health and wellness program has been initiated, Kurtz said it’s important to keep the program going. Continue to celebrate achievements well after any formal program has concluded, he stressed.

“You’ve gotta stay on top of it,” he said. “A big mistake we learned is when the program runs out, you need somebody to keep it going.”

At Christmas time, Kurtz said drivers who kept the weight off that they lost through the formal TCA program were given monetary rewards.

If you don’t know where to start in developing a wellness program, Dietrick suggested turning to local experts at nearby colleges, universities and hospitals. Often, student groups will be available to provide expertise and guidance at no cost.

All three panelists at the Driving for Profit seminar said they’ve seen many success stories. But what defines a successful health and wellness program varies. Kurtz said “We’ve seen 20% of our staff lose more than 5% of their body mass and keep it off for a year so far.”

Five employees have reduced in half – or completely eliminated – the medications they were on, he added.

“Keeping it front and centre is the biggest hurdle right now,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier with the way our staff has responded.”

And it’s not just drivers. Kurtz said 50% of the company’s operations staff has collectively lost 10% of its body mass.

Erb’s Dietrick admitted it’s tough to measure a return on investment. However, he said 40% of Erb’s employees have participated in the programs it offers.

At Prime, in 10 months, 130 drivers have enrolled in the program and 63% completed it and are in compliance, meaning they wear monitoring devices to prove they’ve stuck to the program and they log their food intake.

“Ninety per cent of those drivers lost an average of 19.3 lbs in 13 weeks,” Baleka said, noting that equates to 1.6 lbs/week, which is better than the fitness industry average of 1.3 lbs/week.

“This whole idea that you can’t do it in the truck – we’re smashing that, we’re doing better than the average,” he said.
In addition to those who’ve enrolled in the full program, another 500 drivers have used the workout DVD and they’ve lost 5,000 lbs – or 10 lbs per driver. Prime has set up an athletic division that helps drivers get to fitness events they wish to participate in. Baleka said the target at Prime is for participants to shed 7% of their body weight in 13 weeks. Those who succeed are offered the opportunity to become mentors for others, and they’re paid extra to do so. While there’s no shortage of individual success stories, Baleka agreed it’s difficult to define a return on investment. He said Prime is studying data to see if there’s a correlation between body mass index and preventable accidents.

“We know there are soft returns, but it’s going to take another two to three years to have Prime-specific data on results from our program,” he said. He encouraged carriers to look at their fleet’s BMI profile and see if it correlates with slips and falls and other lost-time injuries.

“If a disproportionate amount is coming from obese drivers, then obesity is costing your company,” he said.

Kurtz said a wellness program can be implemented without a lot of cost. He estimated it to be about $300 per driver, using the Lindora Clinic/TCA formula. He also suggested finding a cheerleader within the office to administer the program and provide support.

While it may seem that living healthy on the road is impossible, drivers who’ve made the lifestyle changes report they now find it easier to live healthy on the road than at home. “They go home, and they say they can’t wait to get back in the truck,” said Baleka. “They’re losing weight when in the truck because they have the opportunity to focus on themselves.”

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