Losing weight, gaining life

Truckers News’ Fit for the Road participants finish pounds lighter after logging heavy miles on the way to improved health.

Nearly a year after starting Truckers News’ Fit for the Road program, Nancy Younger needed some new clothes. So the owner-operator from Kathleen, Fla., did what she always did before, she headed to the plus-size department and gathered up an armful of pants and shirts to try on.

Nothing fit. Instead of tugging on too-tight clothes, she found they were falling off her body. “I sat down in the dressing room and cried because I was so overwhelmed with joy. It had been a long time since I’d looked into a mirror and smiled at my reflection,” Younger says. She walked over to the next department and bought size 16s. “It had been 22 years since I could wear a real ladies size!”

Nancy’s remarkable journey from obesity to fitness began when she wrote the award-winning essay on her application for the Fit for the Road program. “Choose me and you’ll never regret it,” she declared. And she was right.

She had to change not only her eating and exercise habits but also how she thought about food. “I no longer use food to reward or comfort myself,” she says. “Now, I look at it as a source of energy and nutrition and from the perspective of caloric content versus nutritional content. Unhealthy foods don’t taste good to me anymore.”

She describes her journey as a serious responsibility where failure was not an option. “It was a matter of life or death, and I had to decide which path I would travel.” She chose the path toward a healthier life.

John Shook, a company driver from Mount Vernon, Ill., didn’t realize how much he’d changed until he unloaded a truck full of cabinets. “Before I lost weight and started working out, I would have been worn out by the physical labor needed to complete the job. But now, I feel strong and energetic, and it was easy work.”

Like Younger, Shook didn’t like to look in mirrors. Now, as he gains strength and health and continues to lose weight, he’ll pass a mirror and think, “Wow, you did it!” His family and friends can’t stop exclaiming about how different he looks. “It’s not just on the outside – everything about me feels better now,” Shook says.

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Feeling and looking better were the unexpected rewards 45-pounds-lighter company driver Albert Morales experienced, too. His goal was to improve his health so he could be there for his family.

“I keep my ‘fat pants’ to remind me of how I looked before I lost weight,” Morales says. He shares his story with truckers he meets on the road and offers encouragement to anyone ready to take the first steps. “I literally had to take baby steps to get started. A lap around my truck was all I could manage. Now, I feel like a new man,” he says.

Last year, five overweight drivers were chosen to participate in the Fit for the Road program. Each trucker received a customized, healthy weight-loss program designed by a dietician; a thorough medical checkup performed by a physician; and a workout program from a fitness trainer. Their progress was followed by Truckers News readers through regularly updated articles, personal blogs (www.fit4theroad.com) and radio interviews with editors and participants.

The goal of the program was to shed light on the serious health issues facing overweight truckers and to offer practical options for those in search of healthy diet and fitness choices. Selected from more than 350 applicants, the five participating truckers were chosen based on their health issues and the essay they wrote to accompany the application, which described the motivation behind their desire to lose weight.

Hundreds of heart-felt stories ensured our choice was an extremely difficult one. Many feared their poor health would cause them to lose their livelihoods or even their lives. All expressed a common desire: to learn how to make healthier food choices on the road.

The “fab five” met in Knoxville, Tenn., at the Professional Drivers Medical Depot, where Dr. John McElligott evaluated their health and counseled them on their various medical issues.

Dietician Pam Whitfield collected their food diaries and gave them customized healthy diet plans later that month. Fitness specialist Linda Dunn met with them halfway through the program to develop a fitness routine suited for their particular interests and ability.

In addition to Younger, Shook and Morales, husband-and-wife team company drivers Carey and Terry Hill from San Antonio made up the original five participants in the program.

Almost a year later, three out of the five report amazing stories of better health, more energy and overwhelming positive response from family and fellow truckers. The Hills did not complete the program for personal reasons, but halfway through they reported significant health gains. Younger lost the most weight, an incredible 77 pounds. Morales and Shook both lost more than 40 pounds each and continue to make steady progress.

All three experienced improved blood pressure, better sleep quality, increased energy and a sense of accomplishment. Younger’s dangerously high blood sugar returned to normal, and the frequency of Shook’s blood pressure regimen was cut in half. They enjoyed positive attention from family and friends as their weight loss became noticeable, and they report an increase in overall self-esteem.

The journey was not an easy one, but it’s one that drivers, especially the more than 50 percent of truckers considered medically obese, will relate to.

In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 60 percent of adult Americans (127 million) are categorized as overweight, and obesity causes at least 30,000 deaths per year. Truckers News conducted a recent e-mail survey of more than 300 company drivers and owner-operators. Sixty-eight percent said they considered themselves overweight, with more than a quarter saying they would like to lose between 31-50 pounds. Most responded that the main obstacles toward a healthy eating and exercise routine were the lack of on-the-road food choices and time constraints. Traditional weight-loss and exercise programs don’t fit into a trucker’s usual routine. But, as demonstrated by the three successful Fit for the Road participants, it can be done.

Stages of changes
Whitfield says successfully making a drastic life change begins with the desire to get started. “The stages of change begin with the thought that you want to try something different. Slowly, the thought evolves into an actual goal.” She says that writing the essay during the application process forced the participants to put their goals on paper, “reinforcing the idea that they could actually do it.” Having “before” photographs taken, along with the pressure of having their progress chronicled in print, added to their motivation to succeed. “But the initial desire had to come from within the individual,” she says.

Once the excitement of having an established goal was set, the real work began. “They had the desire, and then this program gave them the tools to succeed,” Whitfield says. “With basic nutritional information they made significant dietary changes.” She mandated that they cut their daily caloric intake by making basic changes to their meal plans. “I didn’t eliminate their favorite foods, because food restrictions typically lead to eventual weight gain,” Whitfield says. Instead, she worked with them to eat three meals a day, reduce portion size and substitute healthy foods for fatty, fried or sugary ones. Her requirement of three meals a day was a significant change for all five.

“Most drivers go with one or two meals a day due to their driving schedule,” Whitfield says. “They think that less meals means fewer calories, but they don’t take into account the massive amount of calories from high-carbohydrate snacks.”

Whitfield credits all three finalists with having a strong desire to lose weight and begin exercising.

“John Shook and Albert Morales made basic dietary changes,” she says. “They became aware of the hidden calories in some of their favorite foods. Neither expected to like their meal plan, but both said they were able to eat less but feel satisfied. You can’t feel ‘deprived’ on a diet that’s going to have long-term success rates.” John and Albert wanted to lose 50 pounds, and both are close to their goal as of press time.

Whitfield says Nancy Younger was incredibly motivated, and her goal of losing 100 pounds was the most ambitious: “Nancy impressed me with her fierce motivation to lose weight. She chose a more restrictive diet with fewer calories than I recommended, but her weight loss was remarkable.”

Whitfield wasn’t surprised that two out of the five dropped out of the program. “It’s hard to predict exactly who will accomplish their goals,” she says. “Losing and maintaining weight loss is an incredibly difficult endeavor for anyone. Truckers have more obstacles than most.”

Like most seriously overweight people, the Fit for the Road participants had a myriad of health problems linked to obesity. Their initial 20 pounds of weight loss translated into immediate health benefits – better blood pressure, alertness, sleep quality – factors that also contribute to safer driving. The benefits accrue as they continue to lose weight and exercise.

Morales expressed what many obese truckers say is their main motivation for losing weight. “I was concerned that I’d leave my wife without a husband and my family without a father.”

The proliferation of obesity-related health issues is a concern shared by many in the trucking industry. Fleets continue to add wellness programs, weight-loss incentives and medically supervised diet and fitness programs for their drivers. Almost all travel centers offer healthier food choices than they did in the past. Most have separate “heart-healthy” menus upon request. But the numbers show there’s a long way to go.

Dr. McElligott says his research indicates the average trucker weighs 250 pounds, is 5’8″ tall and is only going to live about 56 years. The Department of Labor Statistics shows truckers have the most fatalities of all occupations, and according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, truckers report more injuries than any other class of workers. McElligott feels many of the statistics are related to accidents caused by fatigue, lack of alertness and other safety issues linked to obesity-related disorders. “Losing weight will significantly extend their life expectancy,” he says.

He’s made it his mission to improve the health of truckers and says obesity is the biggest problem facing the industry. “Programs like Fit for the Road help truckers understand the seriousness of losing weight and getting more fit,” he says.

He evaluated the Fit for the Road participants and is pleased with their progress. “Nancy’s A1C [diabetes measurement] went from dangerously high to normal. Her blood sugar and blood pressure showed significant improvement, as did her overall energy level and exercise tolerance,” he says. “All overweight truckers can improve their health by taking the first steps toward losing weight and increasing fitness levels.”

The first step is deciding you want to do something about your weight. Next, make an appointment with your family doctor for a complete checkup. “You need to know your numbers,” he says.

After the medical evaluation, Dr. McElligott recommends choosing a conservative, nutritionally sound diet. Some of his quick tips include: “If it’s green, it’s good. If it’s white, it’s not. Choose healthy green vegetables and eliminate sugars and white flour products. Grilled is good. Order grilled lean meats instead of fried ones. Substitute water for high-sugar sodas and cut back on fatty, fried snacks. Cut back on the portions.”

Exercise is a crucial part of any weight-loss program, and McElligott recommends starting with five minutes of walking for an obese patient. “Walk around your truck every time you stop,” he says. “Gradually, increase your walks, adding no more than 10 percent per week.”

For an obese client, walking is like carrying 100 pounds of cement in your arms. “Gradual increments will produce the best results,” he says.

He acknowledges that eating healthy and getting enough exercise is a challenge for truckers but that with motivation and good information, it can be done.

“The trucking profession is eaten up with obesity. We have to do something about it – now.”

John Shook
Location: Mount Vernon, Ill.
Age: 38
Height: 6′
Weight at start: 255 pounds
Final weight: 215 pounds
Total weight loss: 40 pounds
Size changes: Went from a XXL shirt to a size large for the cover photo, pant size from 38 to 34 waist.
Health changes: Blood pressure medication cut in half and blood pressure is normal: 120/73.
Significant lifestyle changes: Shook changed his diet to include three meals per day, one mid-morning snack and one late-afternoon snack. His breakfast menu now consists of low-fat milk with sugarless cereal. He eliminated fatty, fried snacks and for dinner chooses salad with grilled chicken. His exercise routine went from no physical activity to working out three times per week. He rides a fold-up bike for four to five miles a day.

Nancy Younger
Location: Kathleen, Fla.
Age: 42
Height: 5’7″
Weight at start: 292 pounds
Final weight: 215 pounds
Total weight loss: 77 pounds
Size changes: 3X to a size 16 regular
Health changes: Excellent blood pressure, 114/72, and normal blood sugar levels.
Significant lifestyle changes: Nancy completely changed her way of life. Her diet went from an average of 3,000 calories per day to one that included three small meals and healthy snacks. She added vigorous walking and exercise for more than an hour per day. Her extraordinary determination shone through her blog entries, where she acquired a devoted following of truckers on a quest to lose weight and get healthy.

Albert Morales
Marten Transport
Location: Port St. Lucie, Fla.
Age: 49
Height: 5’7″
Weight at start: 261 pounds
Final weight: 218 pounds
Total weight loss: 43 pounds
Pant size change: Went from 46 to 38
Health changes: Albert reports that his blood pressure is now in the normal range. He feels better about himself and has more energy.
Significant lifestyle change: Morales watches his calorie and fat intake, eats three meals a day and tries to choose healthy snacks. He limits himself to one soda per day and has given up most of the sweets he used to snack on. He’s added brisk walks to his daily routine.