Gauge Your Health

Trade krispy kreme for low-cal and lean. Swap CB talk for a brisk walk. Your health depends on it.

You would probably never consider driving 15,000 miles without an oil change, but how many years has it been since you had a complete physical? You never pump inferior diesel through your truck’s engine, but you don’t think twice about fueling your body with fat- and calorie-laden foods.

Face it: Focused on working hard and getting the job done, you probably give little thought to your own health – or if you do, you feel like there is little you can do to change it.

Trucker Keith Birmingham, who recently underwent quadruple bypass surgery, is a prime example. “My health problems came as a result of taking better care of my truck, load, dispatcher and boss than I did of myself,” he admits.

That strong work ethic, often combined with poor eating and minimal exercise, can lead to numerous health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes.

At the heart of many of these problems – especially for truckers – is obesity, says nurse Sharon Mitchell, who treats many truckers at the American Business Medical Services clinic at a Jessup, Md., truck stop. “It’s almost like: ‘I’m a truck driver, therefore I’m going to be fat,'” Mitchell says.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, say truckers who’ve won the battle of the bulge. The key, they say, is to stop making excuses and start taking control.

“You have to watch what you’re doing out here or you’ll be 400 pounds,” says owner-operator Bretta Stout, who’s leased to U.S. Xpress. A side effect of the steroids Stout takes for allergies is increased appetite, so she works extra hard to keep her weight in check.

She exercises by parking at the rear of truck stops to lengthen her walk in and by walking at rest areas. She also watches what she eats. “In the morning I have a light breakfast, then I keep carrots and celery in a cooler to munch on during the day,” she says. “At night I eat lots of salads and chicken that isn’t fried.”

Trucker Gerald Phares cut out sodas and bread and “just basically counted calories,” he says. Eighteen months later he’s lost nearly 90 pounds. A typical day’s menu is fruit for breakfast, pretzels and a SlimFast shake for lunch and lean meat or fish and a vegetable or salad for dinner.

Owner-operator Mike Curle, Overdrive’s 2004 Trucker of the Year, gained weight after he quit smoking, but lost 50 pounds by following the Atkins low-carb diet. “Mainly I just laid off the bread and potatoes,” he says. Following the Atkins plan, Curle typically ate bacon, eggs and sliced tomatoes for breakfast, a salad with grilled chicken for lunch, and steak and a half of a baked potato for dinner.

But Rachel Brandeis, a registered dietician with the American Dietetic Association, cautions against staying on the Atkins diet for long periods, especially if you don’t exercise. The high saturated fat content of many Atkins-approved foods put you at risk for heart disease, she says. And because Atkins cuts out the carbs that give you energy, it could lead to fatigue – especially bad news for truck drivers.

Birmingham says he feels better “when my diet is a proper one instead of out of the convenience store,” but he credits exercise for his 30-pound weight loss. After his bypass surgery, he started walking, slowly working up to four or more miles per day. “I started at 249,” he says. “Just now the scale was reading 220. I am not through.” Fitness experts recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity – like walking – on most days of the week, preferably every day. But to lose weight, or to maintain weight loss, you may need to do more than that.

Short of walking around truck-stop parking lots, however, getting regular exercise may seem difficult because of limitations on equipment and space. “I do some sit-ups and push-ups in my truck,” says owner-operator Daniel Garner, Oakland, Miss. “I don’t do too much running, because I don’t feel really safe running around the parking lots.”

Recognizing such difficulties, some carriers now provide workout facilities. For example, most of U.S. Xpress’ larger terminals make exercise bikes, treadmills and other equipment available to truckers. Wooster, Ohio-based Wooster Motor Ways converted a trailer into a fitness room that features cardiovascular equipment, weight-training machines and free weights.

Staying healthy on the road is an uphill battle, but truckers who’ve made lifestyle changes are living proof that it can be done if you put yourself – and your health – first. After suffering numerous health problems brought on by the trucking lifestyle, trucker Birmingham changed his philosophy: “Now, I do not live to work. I work to live.”

To get the kind of exam necessary to detect – and hopefully prevent – many health problems, you’ll need to schedule a visit to your family physician. If you’re under 45, experts recommend a thorough physical every two years. Make that annually if you’re older than 45 or are having symptoms that concern you or your doctor.

Talk to your doctor about how often you should have each of these tests:

BLOOD PRESSURE. At least every two years.
CHOLESTEROL. Every five years. A test that includes total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol can help evaluate your risk of heart disease.
PROSTATE. If you are 50 or older your doctor may recommend that you have either a digital rectal exam or a blood test to detect prostate cancer.
COLORECTAL CANCER. Begin screening for colorectal cancer at age 50.
DIABETES. Get tested if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES. If you have been sexually active with more than one partner or notice unusual symptoms, consult with your doctor.

You can perform these exercises while sitting on the edge of your bunk, using hand weights available from any sporting equipment retailer. Keep your back straight at all times. Repeating each exercise 10 times is one set; do three sets of each exercise. Use weights heavy enough to tire your muscles by the 10th repetition.

BICEP CURL. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing up and arms at a 90-degree angle. Slowly curl the weights up and in toward your chest; pause and then slowly lower the weights.

FRONT RAISE. Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing backward. Allowing your arms to hang straight down on either side of your legs, flex your shoulder muscles, lock your elbows and extend one arm upward until it is parallel to the floor, then slowly lower it.

TRICEPS EXTENSION. Hold a dumbbell over your head as you would a hammer. Slowly lower the weight behind your head, at an arc toward your opposite shoulder, until your elbow forms a 90-degree angle. Slowly raise the weight until your arm is nearly straightened.

MILITARY PRESS. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with palms facing forward, hands just above your shoulders. Lift both arms up above your head with your elbows pointed outward. Stop when your arms are still slightly bent. Slowly lower the weights.

If you’re a smoker, quitting is one of the best things you can do for your health. And the positive changes begin immediately. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after:

24 HOURS – Chance of heart attack drops.
TWO WEEKS TO THREE MONTHS – Circulation improves. Walking becomes easier. Lung function increases up to 30 percent.
ONE TO NINE MONTHS – Coughing, sinus congestion and shortness of breath decrease. Energy increases.
ONE YEAR – Heart disease risk falls to half that of a smoker.
FIVE YEARS – Lung cancer death rate decreases by almost half. Mouth, throat and esophagus cancer risk falls to half that of a smoker.
10 YEARS – Lung cancer death rate is similar to a nonsmoker’s. Precancerous cells are replaced.
15 YEARS – Heart disease risk is that of a nonsmoker.

Is it when your shirt buttons start straining that you assume you’re overweight? That’s a good sign, but there is a more scientific method. The body mass index uses a person’s weight and height to gauge total body fat.

To calculate your BMI, multiply your weight in pounds by 705, then divide by height in inches twice.

IDEAL WEIGHT: 24 or less
OVERWEIGHT: 25 or more

You may feel like you have few options when it comes to getting a good total-body workout on the road. But even if there’s not a Gold’s Gym in sight, these products can help you get enough exercise to lower your blood pressure, ease stress, lose weight, build strength and flexibility and reduce cholesterol – and they all fit easily in the cab of your truck.

RESISTANCE BANDS are tubes or straps of varying resistances that enable you to perform a range of exercises to strengthen and tone your upper and lower body. Individual bands cost about $10. Ideal Fitness offers a kit with several types of bands and a how-to book or video for $30-$45,

FOLD-UP BIKES are an excellent option for truckers because they fold up in about 10 seconds, weigh about 25 pounds and fit easily in your sleeper cab. Biking is one of the best aerobic exercises around, helping you burn calories and build strong leg muscles. Bikes from the Better Bicycle Co. start at about $280,

HAND WEIGHTS help you increase strength and shed pounds while fighting age-related declines in muscle mass, bone density and metabolism. A 10-pound pair costs about $12. Weights are available at most major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target or go to

TRUCK GYM lets you do more than 22 exercises from your truck seat. It uses a steel frame that can be adjusted to fit snugly around the seat; tension tubes attach to the frame for exercising. The base attaches to the floor with self-tapping screws. It costs $299,

Making long-term changes in eating and physical activity is key to helping you lose weight and keep it off over time, experts say. Overweight people who lose as little as 5 percent of their body weight may lower their risk for several diseases, including heart disease and diabetes, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases. If you weigh 200 pounds, for example, that means losing 10 pounds. Experts say slow and steady weight loss of 1/2 to 2 pounds per week, and not more than 3 pounds per week, is the safest way to lose weight.

“Small changes make a big impact,” says Rachel Brandeis of the American Dietetic Association. “The best thing you can do is make changes that are going to stick around for the long term, not go for a fad diet that may be too restrictive.”

Brandeis recommends stocking up on healthy, non-perishable foods before you go out on the road. Fruits, especially apples and pears, can keep for a week or more in the fridge. Low-fat yogurts, cheese sticks and lean deli meats are good sources of protein. Whole-grain crackers like Triscuits and high-protein, low-sugar protein bars make good snacks.

“Research shows if you start off your morning with high fat, high sugar foods, you’re more likely to overeat during the day,” she says. Instead, she recommends a healthy breakfast of eggs, wheat toast and fruit or whole-grain cereal and fruit.

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