Truckers hit the road to health

Two years ago, truck driver Rick Ash weighed too much, slept fitfully and suffered body aches after a long day behind the wheel.

Ash, 60, of Lakewood, Colo., had spent decades sitting all day, guzzling a daily gallon of coffee with high-fructose corn syrup creamer. He subsisted on truck-stop and fast-food fare: often fried, sometimes drenched in gravy, loaded with fat and sugar. And he got little or no exercise.

"It's a very sedentary job," he says. "You sit in the seat and drive all day. Unless you make some considerable effort to eat healthy and exercise, it's very difficult to be healthy."

In 2010, Ash quit drinking coffee, substituting green tea and lots of water, and started eating salmon, baked chicken, brown rice and vegetables.

"A lot of fruit, melon and cottage cheese," Ash says. "I know that's not going to sound appetizing to a lot of truck drivers. But now, one of my favorite meals is a salad."

He started walking 20-30 miles a week and dropped 54 pounds over the next year. "I have an increase in energy," Ash says. "I sleep better. I don't have as many body aches from sitting in the truck all day long." He feels it in the wallet, too: Ash, an independent owner-operator, says his insurance premium dropped nearly $100 a month.

Now, he's trying to get the word out to his fellow drivers.

The nation's 3.5 million commercial truck drivers are in pretty poor health. A recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found transportation workers to have the highest obesity rate -- 37.8% -- of any U.S. industry.

Truckers also have higher rates of high blood pressure and smoking than the general public. Nearly a third of them have a sleep disorder that can cause drowsiness and slowed reaction times while driving.

Exercise a rarity

Truckers spend long hours behind the wheel, trying to cover as many miles as possible during their federally restricted driving hours. It's often difficult for them to purchase healthier fare because of truck-parking restrictions, leaving many with no dining options other than truck-stop restaurants. Many get little or no exercise.

A study of 2,950 truckers published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2009 found that 85% were overweight and 55% obese. That followed a 2007 study of 92 truckers in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that found that obesity among long-haul truck drivers was "much more severe" than among the general public.

It found that 86% were overweight and 66% were obese; that compared with 65% of the general public that were overweight and nearly half who were obese. A 2007 University of Utah study of 96 commercial drivers, most of them long-haul truckers, found that 68% of the truckers were smokers.

The trucking industry is trying to reverse those trends.

Trucking firms are setting up wellness programs for their drivers. Some truck stops are offering healthy menu items and free exercise rooms for drivers. Many truckers are carrying bicycles with them on the road, or brown-bagging it. The federal agency that regulates commercial truck drivers is considering mandatory testing of truckers who have high body mass index (BMI) readings for sleep apnea, which can cause drowsiness.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is considering a rule -- recommended by its safety advisory committee and medical review board -- that would require any driver with a BMI of 35 or higher to be evaluated for apnea. That's a condition in which the air flow pauses or decreases during sleep because the airway is narrowed, blocked or floppy; it repeatedly interrupts sleep, leaving sufferers fatigued.

Commercial truckers are required to pass a medical exam every two years.

"Better health means safer drivers behind the wheel," says FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro. She says the agency is "committed to a rigorous driver medical program that ensures individuals applying for a commercial driver's license are first checked out for a variety of conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and respiratory disorders."

The agency will seek public comment on the proposed high-BMI rule later this year, then decide whether to implement it.

Con-way Freight, a trucking firm headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich., saw 2,500 employees, mostly truckers, lose weight -- an average of 13.5 pounds -- in its wellness program last year, says President Greg Lehmkuhl. More than 4,200 started exercising, more than 200 quit smoking, and 4,700 reduced their blood pressure.

"Healthy drivers are absolutely safer drivers, safer for themselves and safer for the motoring public," Lehmkuhl says.

They also help the bottom line. The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study found that obese truckers had an annual average total health care cost of $1,944, compared with $1,755 for overweight truckers and $1,131 for normal-weight drivers.

Schneider National, a trucking company based in Green Bay, Wis., implemented a sleep apnea screening and treatment program in 2006-2007 and identified about 350 drivers who required treatment, says Angela Fish, director of compensation and benefits. Over a one-year period, Schneider National saved $530 per month per driver in insurance costs, mostly due to reduced in-hospital stays, Fish says. The company also saw a 71% reduction in accidents involving those drivers over that same period.

Healthy food at truck stops

After hearing from drivers that they wanted more healthy options at TravelCenters of America/Petro's 240 truck stops in 41 states, the company created a StayFit program that offers 14-16 healthy menu items at many restaurants and fresh fruit at 35-50 of its convenience stores, says company spokesman Tom Liutkus. Free exercise rooms, modeled after those at many hotels, are available to drivers at 41 locations.

"At 120 locations, we have walking or jogging trails," Liutkus says. "Drivers can pick up a map, just like the hotel model, and find roads and streets in and around our location."

Scott Grenerth, 42, of Arlington, Ohio, who's been driving a big rig for just over 10 years, is a vegan who carries his food with him in the refrigerator in his truck and seeks out fresh vegetables on the road. Grenerth also takes his eight-speed bicycle and averages a 30-mile ride about three times a week.

Grenerth says he sees more and more truckers taking bikes on the road. "Drivers are really looking at health with a fresh set of eyes and ears," he says.

Losing 73 pounds

Otho Kretzer, 49, of Boonsboro, Md., a driver for Con-way Freight, used to live on hamburgers, fried chicken and french fries. "I was into all kinds of fried dishes, high-calorie meals," he says. He also drank four to eight 20-ounce bottles of cola, mostly Coca-Cola Classic, every day. "I considered myself to be a popoholic. The biggest exercise I got would be walking out to my truck and hooking up the trailer."

He and his wife, Brenda, had talked a lot about improving his health, but he'd never gotten around to doing anything about it. Until last New Year's Eve.

"It wasn't a New Year's resolution," Kretzer says. "I said, 'I'm tired of my back hurting.' I couldn't walk 20, 30, 40 yards without my back hurting."

He worked with a Con-way Freight wellness coach and nutritionist and joined WeightWatchers. He went cold turkey on the Coke, ate smaller portions of the foods he's always loved and added baked chicken instead of fried, steamed and broiled fish and lots of vegetables. He walks 15 miles a week.

Kretzer has lost 73 pounds. His doctor has taken him off cholesterol medication, and he's looking forward to getting off blood pressure medicine.

"One of my biggest inspirations was my two grandsons and my granddaughter," he says. "I want to see them grow up. I'm hoping to add years to my life."

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