Battling obesity

| February 01, 2007

Overweight drivers at risk for loss of career and even life.

Dirk van Wyngaarden was 43 years old when the 340-pound trucker fell out of his cab in 1996 and landed on his right ankle, shattering his tibia and changing the course of his life. The Appleby company driver from Brantford, Ontario, Canada, lay on the icy ground in excruciating pain and wondered if it was his excess weight that had caused such damage.

The 6-foot-4-inch trucker had not always been overweight. In fact, he weighed 165 pounds when he graduated from high school. But 25 years and 175 pounds later, he was classified as obese. Because of his weight, he was at risk for major diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, sleep apnea, cancer and joint injuries like he suffered in the fall.

It’s been a tedious process to deal with his injuries and adopt a healthier lifestyle, but at 53, he’s back to driving.

More than 60 percent of adult Americans (about 127 million) are categorized as being overweight or obese, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control studies. Each year, obesity causes at least 300,000 deaths in the United States and costs approximately $100 billion in health care. The statistics are even worse for truck drivers.

Studies show that approximately 73 percent of drivers are overweight and more than 50 percent are obese.

Weight issues – especially those brought on by poor eating habits and lack of exercise – can lead to serious health problems, resulting in a shortened life span and low quality of life. The costs associated with obesity-related health issues in sick days and out-of-pocket expenses can add up to thousands of dollars per year for a trucker and even rob you of the ability to make a living in trucking.

The more stringent blood pressure rules have already forced some drivers off the road, and now the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration plans to create a National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners to make passing the Department of Transportation-required physical a more rigorous process. Obesity-related diseases will be more carefully scrutinized, and there will be more emphasis on driver health and fitness. Drivers who have skated under the more lax requirements will find themselves scrambling to address their health issues.

Getting fit for the road can be a difficult, heartbreaking battle that encompasses what may seem like overwhelming obstacles. But the good news is carriers, trucking associations, truckstop operators, medical professionals and Truckers News want to help truckers meet those challenges and become more healthy and fit.

“The journey to better health and fitness begins with baby steps,” says Wendy Sullivan, a registered nurse and occupational health manager for Schneider National. “Even small improvements in diet and activity level can result in health benefits such as lower cholesterol and blood pressure, along with increased energy and improvements in appearance, better quality of sleep and longer life span.”

Companies are putting more emphasis on wellness as they explore ways to help their truckers adopt a healthier lifestyle. Susan Deetz, human resources director for Marten Transport, says their in-house Weight Watchers program has been well received and they are exploring ways to expand the program (or another established weight-loss program) to include drivers in 2007. “We realize how difficult it can be for truckers to exercise and make healthy food choices on the road and want to help them make informed choices,” Deetz says.

Dr. John McElligott, medical director for Professional Drivers Medical Depots (PDMD), agrees that even small weight loss can result in health benefits. McElligott says his plan to open health clinics at truckstops will make regular health care a more convenient option for truckers battling obesity-related issues and will include wellness programs.

“Obesity-related complications exclude no organ system in the human body,” he says. But the good news, McElligott says, is that consistent weight loss can slow or even reverse the progression of weight-related diseases and reduce reliance on medications.

Ready, set, go!
Getting started is the biggest step, and the motivation to change is different for everyone. Tom Lee, an owner-operator from Mt. Vernon, Wash., says he’s about 100 pounds overweight and is haunted by the early death of his trucker father, Harry Lee. The senior Lee was only 37 years old when he had a fatal heart attack in his truck cab, and Lee says he’s never gotten over the devastation of becoming fatherless at age 12.

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