Shift to fitness gear

by Julia Kuzeljevich

Our health-crazed society demands summer-ripe vine tomatoes in the dead of winter, but the drivers bringing them to market are probably relying on a diet of snack foods and caffeine to get through the day and night. Exercise may be the last thing on your mind as you shift to find a more comfortable spot on the driver’s seat. And, more often than not, it’s just the diesel engine that’s doing all the running in the course of the day. Limited largely to truck-stop and doughnut-shop fare, truckers’ dietary choices can be limited.

But in an era in which driver fatigue is the focus of regulators, the links between a healthy lifestyle and managing that fatigue are becoming more obvious.

Everyone seems to want truckers to become healthier.

Sure, off-duty lifestyle and sleep habits have a major effect on driving, and a healthy diet and exercise may be the cure-all for truckers, but are they possible in the profession?

The Canadian Sleep Institute and Alberta Trucking Industry Safety Association (ATISA) struck a deal last year to launch Canada’s National Pilot on Transportation Fatigue Management. But here, fatigue management will go beyond the logbook. The program will look at everything from sleep disorders to fitness.

“We’re a little more comfortable on the sleep side so far, and we’ve got lots of work done on scheduling,” says Roger Clarke, executive director of vehicle safety and carrier services at Alberta Infrastructure. The program will also address the health, wellness and fitness aspects of life. “So far, these are the least understood of the problems,” says Clarke.

The program should be developed by this month, with on-the-road testing to begin in the spring. Transport Canada, Alberta Infrastructure, the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board, and the Societe de l’Assurance Automobile de Quebec are all involved.

The U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), in conjunction with the American Trucking Associations, has also been working on a pilot project to promote driver wellness. The program, called “Getting in Gear”, has been in development for about 1-1/2 years and will be available by spring after a final review.

“The program components emphasize the four Rs,” says Jerry Robin of the FMCSA’s Research Division in Washington, D.C. “The four components are refueling, (diet and nutrition), rejuvenating (exercise and fitness), relating (family-centered skills) and relaxing (stress management),” he says. The bottom line, says Robin, is that truck driver fitness can improve highway safety. “Preliminary data in the pilot showed that people were eating healthier, and stating they felt better. There was a lowering of blood pressure and of cholesterol,” says Albert Alvarez of the FMCSA’S Health Wellness program.

Getting in Gear suggests ways truckers can incorporate walking and other light exercise into their routines.

“You can simply walk around your truck, or park further away from the truck stop,” says Alvarez. “Based on the pilot project’s preliminary data, exercise seems to have made a difference,” he says. “Eating is also a critical component to this package.”

What is the best way to eat when you’re going to be sitting for a long time?

Sue Roberts, a health consultant in Des Moines, Iowa, was the person contracted to work on the nutrition aspects of the chapter on “refueling”. During her evaluation for the pilot study, Roberts traveled cross-country with a trucker. She found that, while eating in truck stops was a challenge, the sites were pretty flexible about food preparation. “I didn’t have a whole lot of choice, but they will do things for you, like leaving the butter off,” says Roberts.

Drivers can rate whether they are people who have extra nutrient needs, she adds. Smokers, for example, or even people who have a high amount of physical activity, will have higher nutrient needs, says Roberts.

“One of the big things I noticed with truck drivers is they don’t drink a lot of fluids, because they don’t want to stop on the road!” says Roberts. “They just eat horribly, and have a prevalence of being overweight and heavy smokers, at twice the rate of the normal population,” she says.

“It’s important to strive for balance and to set goals, but also to accept setbacks. It’s already a major thing if you can say I’ll have an orange instead of, say, a bag of chips.”

Being fit also means being flexible, having a certain level of strength, and a good cardiovascular system. At least 20 minutes of exercise that will raise your heart rate, three to four times a week, is the ideal. Still, truck drivers who are sitting for long periods of time can suffer from quite a few back-related problems, and should approach exercise cautiously, if they are not already in an established routine. Saving your back can save you quite a lot of pain, and is relatively simple to do, as long as you make a conscious effort.

“Probably the most common back problems among truckers are disc-related problems,” says Mike Affleck, manager of employer services at the Canadian Back Institute of Health. Affleck says the term ‘slipped disc’ is poor terminology, because discs don’t actually slip. Pressure on the front of the disc pushes its jelly-like center toward the back, tearing the rings of the disc.

Back injuries are most common between the ages of 30 and 50, and less common as you get older. According to the stats, says Affleck, eight out of 10 people will experience back pain at some time in their life. The biggest causes are poor posture, faulty body mechanics (such as how you lift), stressful living and work habits, and a declining level of physical fitness. Doing the same thing again and again, without varied movement, can further wreak havoc on the back.

“You want to have as many types of movements as you can,” says Affleck. “Ideally, you don’t want to sit for prolonged periods. When you are sitting, you should maintain a bit of a curve to your back, so sit with good posture,” says Affleck. He recommends using Obus-Forme molds to fit in your seat and mold to your back’s shape, or a lumbar roll, made of round foam about four inches in diameter. You can also roll up a jacket or use a pillow behind you to maintain a curve in your back.

“With poor lower back posture, the tendency is to get tired and slide the neck forward,” says Affleck.

Certain countermovement exercises, performed before and after driving, and whenever you can fit them in, will ease the strain of sitting. Stand, hands on hips, knees straight, and arch backwards, pushing the hips forward, until pressure comes in on the lower back. Do about 10 of these to prevent and reduce pain. “The thing we say is, if you think of your back as a bank account, forward bending is a withdrawal, and a back bend is a deposit,” says Affleck.

When loading and unloading, keep what you’re lifting close to your body to keep down the force you use, says Affleck. “Maintain your back’s normal curve when lifting. Don’t stoop, and bend knees and hips,” he says. Lifting involves keeping the back and abdominal muscles strengthened.

“It used to be that you did sit-ups until you puked,” says Affleck. “Stomach exercises are important but overemphasized for solving back problems. You need to lift only your shoulder blades off the floor for your abdominal muscles to strengthen. Any more than this and you are strengthening the hip muscles and actually pulling on the back,” he says. Chest raises will strengthen the upper back. Lie on your stomach, hands behind your back, and use your back muscles to just lift your face and chest one to two inches off the ground. Strengthen the lower back by lying on your stomach and raising your leg up from your hip high enough so that your thigh comes off the floor.

Hand in hand with regular preventive and strength-building exercises, take a good look at what you’re eating on a daily basis.

In the United States, one of the most popular truck stop meals is chicken fried steak. According to the restaurant manager at Tim’s Fifth Wheel Truck Stop in Bowmanville, Ont., the all-day breakfast with two eggs, bacon and home fries
is their most popular choice, although the night buffet and salad bar is becoming more popular.

Truck News got two nutritionists to look at typical truck-stop fare, and pick out the best choices for healthy eating.

“Truckers face a number of dietary and health challenges when traveling, such as keeping blood sugar levels regulated properly to prevent fatigue and maintain concentration, staying well hydrated, and keeping physically fit, ” says Suzi Singer, a registered nutritional consulting practitioner at Toronto’s Columbus Centre.

“My arteries were hardening just reading the menus,” she admits.

But when it comes to advising truckers on what to choose from the menus, “You can’t just pinpoint generally,” says Laura Yourth, a holistic nutrition consultant. “Over 40, you might have more digestive problems, or a slower metabolism,” she says.

Monitor carefully where your food comes from, how you cook it and even how you eat it.

“Relax before you eat,” adds Yourth. “If you rush eating, you won’t get the benefit of your food.”

For truckers who are sitting for long periods of time, light is right.

“You don’t want something that’s going to sit on the stomach all day long,” says Yourth. “Protein is better for energy. Make the right choices, though, like fish, but grilled or broiled, and if it’s going to be steak, grilled instead of fried. Soup, like a minestrone with beans and pasta, can be a good choice, or chili.”

Restaurant menus offer salads, but sometimes these can be tricky.

“I would also not go for something like a chef’s salad because it’s got ham and cheese,” says Yourth. “A grilled chicken Caesar salad is good, if it’s a light dressing.”

If possible, put your own dressing on. Request some vinegar and oil instead of the prepared dressings. Sandwiches may sound like a light meal, but pre-made sandwich mixes may actually be loaded with mayo.

“Limit quantities of fats and oils. Choose those of high quality, with minimal processing, suggests Suzi Singer. “Although protein in the diet may be of animal or vegetable origin, the latter choice is best so as to minimize saturated fat, which is linked to diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, and diabetes,” says Singer. “Vegetable protein foods such as beans, legumes, tofu, nuts and seeds are rich sources of ‘essential fatty acids’ and have numerous benefits like lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. They also enhance the immune system.”

“Avoid processed meats, which are really high in fats,” says Yourth. And look for whole-grained brain instead of white. The more the flour’s been refined, the less nutritious it is.

“If you’re eating a salad, and it’s iceberg lettuce, that’s practically all water,” says Yourth. “Romaine lettuce, for example, has more nutrition to it,” she says.

Every once in awhile, though, you shouldn’t worry about every little thing that goes into your food.

There are lots of ways to get sweets without eating lots of sugar. “Avoid refined sugar and sugar substitutes (aspartame, Sweet ‘n’ Low),” says Singer. “For those of us whose work requires intense concentration for lengthy periods of time, we need to keep the level of sugar in the bloodstream well regulated. After a meal that consists of refined starches such as white bread, rice, pasta, or sweets, the blood sugar level rises rapidly, causing too much insulin to be secreted by the pancreas. This leads to a temporary increase of energy and then, soon afterwards, an abrupt drop. The result is fatigue, weakness, and the all-too-familiar craving for more starch and sugar,” she says. Replace sugar with natural sweeteners like maple syrup or molasses.

Eating smaller, more frequent meals is better. “I call this “grazing,” says Singer. She suggests eating a homemade trailmix of unsalted nuts, seeds, raisins and dates. After all, eating right is the foundation of living right. n

Health tips:

SNACKING: Try yogurt, berries, fruit, raw veggies with a low fat dip, cheese, or a mix of fruit topped with granola or chopped nuts. Protein bars or drinks, like shakes that are available in powdered form from health-food stores, are quick sources of energy. Candy bars and coffee offer only a quick high.

GRAB A COOL ONE: Keep bottled water handy instead of pop, which is full of sugar and sometimes contains caffeine. Juices are better than pop, but are also high in sugar. Drink eight to 10 glasses of water a day.

BEFORE SLEEPING: Starchy dishes like pasta will be easier to digest. But avoid caffeine for at least a couple of hours before booking bunk time. “Caffeine takes a lot of time to get out of the system,” says Dr. Ed Gibson, a sleep disorder specialist.

“Avoid nicotine, which is a powerful stimulant,” says sleep specialist Dr. Jeffrey Lipsitz. “Alcohol and tranquilizers may cause light and fragmented sleep.”

Obesity has been linked to sleep disorders such as apnea (where breathing is interrupted in sleep), so developing good sleep habits is linked to what you eat. n

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