Reposted from the Springfield News-Leader. Written by Thomas Gounley. Photo by Dean Curtis/News-Leader.
As part of Prime Inc.’s efforts to improve driver health and wellness — not to mention attract employees — the company’s expansive headquarters on North Mayfair Avenue in Springfield have long contained a basketball court, fitness classes and gym stocked with the latest exercise equipment.
The trouble, however — particularly in an industry with more overweight and obese individuals than the general population — is that most of the company’s drivers spend far more time on the road than they do at headquarters.
Now, the company is trying to convince them to take the fitness mindset in the cab with them.
“What you need is an element where you can reach them in the truck everyday,” said Siphiwe Baleka.
Baleka is in his second year as Prime’s driver fitness coach — a newly created role that developed out of the former college athlete’s own effort to battle weight gain after becoming a driver. The company’s new Driver Health and Fitness Program, he said, is modeled less on the idea that drivers are just making bad choices for their health and more on the belief that the occupation naturally lends itself to health challenges — but that those negative effects can be mitigated.
“It’s a biochemical, hormonal result of the occupation,” he said of drivers’ weight gain. “The industry didn’t understand that.”
Baleka was burned out from another job and short on funds when he joined Prime as a driver in 2008, he said. He was used to fitness, having swam competitively in college. Still, he gained 15 pounds on his 140-pound frame in two months — and realized that trend could easily continue.
“I got scared,” he said. “I did the math.”
As he drove over the next several years, he said, he tried different diet and exercise regimes to see what meshed with his lifestyle. He started carrying a bicycle in his cab, then added a backpack with a wetsuit inside.
His three-year lease of a truck expired in December 2011. In April 2012, he finished Ironman South Africa — a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike ride followed by a marathon — in 11 hours and 59 minutes, good enough for fourth in his age group.
The in-cab experimentation led to Baleka’s Fitness Trucking DVD series, which is sold in Prime’s on-site store.
“I realized there’s a fitness program designed for everyone in America, except for long-haul truckers,” he said.
At the same time as developing the series, he said, he approached Robert Low, president and founder of Prime, about a role on staff. He started in his current position in June 2012, he said, and the company’s Driver Health and Fitness Program began the next month.
As of spring 2013, Prime was the 19th-largest employer in the Springfield metropolitan statistical area, which includes Greene, Christian, Webster, Polk and Dallas counties, according to the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. The company had 852 local full-time equivalent employees, according to the chamber, and 3,500 company-wide.
But the company’s impact is actually broader than than that. Many of Prime’s drivers are lease operators, or independent contractors. The company has approximately 6,200 drivers, according to Baleka.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 69.2 percent of U.S. adults age 20 years and over are overweight, with 35.9 percent of them classified as obese. A 2007 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, meanwhile, found that 86 percent of truck drivers are classified as either overweight or obese.
Most people blame the health of truck drivers on their personal decisions, Baleka said, citing common perceptions. They eat too much. They eat the wrong things. And they’re lazy.
But those people are wrong, he said.
“The reasons why drivers are overweight are not what you think,” he said.
Drivers who voluntarily participate in the the company’s program, he said, wear an armband that tracks various factors and keep a food log that tracks calorie intake. That data, he says, shows that most drivers’ problem isn’t a calorie surplus — it’s a slow metabolism.
Various aspects of the truck driver lifestyle — like irregular sleep schedules — naturally slow one’s metabolism, Baleka said. Truck driving in particular is a very stressful activity — you’re on deadline and driving in traffic — and each stress event releases cortisol.
“It tells your body to store fat in the abdominal area,” he said.
But Baleka says he can counteract that. If drivers increase their metabolic rate to a high intensity for just four minutes a day — primarily by performing body weight exercises in or near their truck — over the course of the 13 weeks, he said, their metabolism will increase permanently.
Baleka’s program boils down to two things — four minutes of activity and a reduction of carbohydrate intake. He works with what most truckers already eat — for example, encouraging them to get a six-inch sub with double meat at Subway instead of buying a foot-long sub.
“I’m not going to tell a driver you’ve got to bake salmon or grill asparagus in your truck, because that’s never going to happen,” he said.
Since Prime’s Driver Health and Fitness Program began, he said, approximately 200 people have enrolled — many after a health scare.
“The vast majority of drivers who come to me come to me because they’re afraid,” he said.
Of those 200, Baleka said, 62 percent have completed the program, with an average weight loss of 20.3 pounds over the 13 weeks. Individuals in the first four classes of the program decreased their average BMI from 38.3 to 35.6. Individuals with BMIs over 25 are classified as overweight; those over 30 are classified as obese. Prime reimburses the $300 cost of the program for those who complete it.
Lease Operator Letitia Clayborne lost 20 pounds in the program.
“I thought it’d be hard, but it wasn’t,” she said.
Rather than deprivation, the program encouraged frequent meals, she said.
“You’d be like, ‘Man, I have to eat again,’” she said.
Over the past year, Baleka said, about 30 drivers have bought folding bikes that they can take with them on the road. Twice a year — in May and September — the company holds a month-long challenge to see who can rack up the most miles; the May winner rode 538.99. Earlier this month, the company hosted a “Fittest of the Fleet” competition during its company picnic — an idea Baleka would like to see incorporated by other companies.
While it can be difficult to determine the return on investment of health initiatives, Steve Wutke, Prime’s vice president of sales and marketing — who was shooting hoops at noon on Thursday — said the company just inherently knows it has made “a lot of progress.”
“We’re all in on it.”