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Long haul truckers working to counteract health perils of hours on the road

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press

Emphasis on getting exercise and eating better

Monday, October 15, 2012 - 12:01 am

DALLAS (AP) — In the months after Doug Robinson started driving a truck, he noticed his clothes were increasingly more snug-fitting. He was already overweight but soon realized that spending up to 11 hours behind the wheel, frequently eating fast food and not exercising was a poor combination.

When his employer, U.S. Xpress, took part in a weight-loss challenge sponsored by the Truckload Carriers Association, the 321-pound, 6-foot-1-inch Robinson signed up.

So far, he's about 40 pounds into his goal of dropping 100. His truck's refrigerator is stocked with chicken, tuna and vegetables. And after his day's drive, he walks — either on trails near rest stops or just circling his truck.

“I have asthma, so with the extra weight on there, it isn't good for me,” said Robinson, a 30-year-old from Philadelphia. “When I started losing weight, instantly I was breathing better. I was sleeping better at night.”

From trucking companies embracing wellness and weight-loss programs to gyms being installed at truck stops, momentum has picked up in recent years to help those who make their living driving big rigs get into shape.

“I think a lot of trucking companies are coming around to the idea that their drivers are their assets,” said Boyd Stephenson of the American Trucking Associations, the industry's largest national trade association. He added that healthier employees help a company's bottom line.

There's an additional incentive for truckers to stay in shape — their job might depend on their health.

Every two years, they must pass a physical exam required by U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. They're checked for conditions that might cause them to become incapacitated — suddenly or gradually — while driving, including severe heart conditions, high blood pressure and respiratory disorders.

While there are no weight restrictions, a commercial driver who has been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea and isn't undergoing treatment will not get a medical certificate. Sleep apnea, more common among those who are overweight, leads to daytime sleepiness, a danger on long drives.

But there are obstacles for truck drivers who are mindful of their health. In addition to being seated for many hours at a time, eating options are usually limited to places with parking lots big enough to accommodate their tractor-trailers — most often truck stops, which historically have not been known for wholesome food or workout equipment.

That's something truck stop chains have been trying to change.

TravelCenters of America, which operates under the TA and Petro Stopping Centers brands, started a program two years ago called StayFit that includes placing small, free gyms in truck stops, offering healthier eating options and half portions, mapping walking routes near truck stops and building basketball courts in some locations.

“We wanted to remove as many barriers to drivers' health as possible,” said TravelCenters spokesman Tom Liutkus, who said the company has gyms at 42 of its more than 240 locations, with plans to outfit them all by the end of next year. He added that the gyms have been accessed more than 30,000 times.

Gym franchiser Snap Fitness has partnered with Rolling Strong, which provides wellness programs aimed at truckers, to open gyms at Pilot Flying J locations. The first one opened south of Dallas in June: A nearly 1,000-square-foot stand-alone building filled with weights and a dozen or so machines. So far, more than 120 memberships have been sold for that gym.

“We know that we have an audience out there that needs help,” said Peter Taunton, Snap Fitness chief executive officer and founder. By the end of the year, they also plan to install gyms inside Pilot Flying J truck stops in Georgia and Tennessee.

A monthly membership of about $30 also gives truckers access to Snap Fitness' more than 1,300 gyms, Taunton said, 60 of which have tractor trailer parking.

Pilot Flying J plans to add a function to its smartphone app to help truckers identify healthy food choices at its locations and fast food restaurants. David Parmly, the company's employee services manager, says the company's truck stops have adjusted recipes to make them healthier and offer oatmeal for breakfast.

Bob Perry, president of Rolling Strong, said truckers flock to daylong wellness screenings that his company sets up at truck stops nationwide.

“We never have to recruit anyone over. We are packed from the time we open till the time we leave,” Perry said.

Robinson, the U.S. Xpress driver trying to lose weight, said that before joining the weight-loss program, he spent his evenings on the road watching television, checking Facebook and talking on the phone.

“At first I was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to exercise.' At the end of the day, I don't want to walk. It's all about planning,” he said. “I just had the willpower to do it.”

Bruce Moss, vice president of human resources for Con-way Freight, said the company has found its wellness program reduces the number of people who call in sick, lowers workplace injuries and controls health care costs. The program gives truckers access to wellness coaches and has them stretch before starting a shift.

Last year, more than 11,500 of Con-way Freight's 21,000 employees, the majority of them drivers, consulted with wellness coaches.

Besides taking part in the association's spring weight-loss challenge, U.S. Xpress has a points system that rewards healthy behaviors with cash. The company also holds health fairs and has placed blood pressure machines in its main terminals.

“All you can do is put the options out there, educate your people and show them the benefit of what happens if you take these steps,” U.S. Xpress spokesman Greg Thompson said.