Scan a list of America’s most dangerous professions, and you’ll find truck driving at or near the top.
Between operating a multi-ton vehicle at highway speeds amid increasingly distracted and impaired motorists and working with heavy loads in all weather conditions, the job description for “truck driver” is not for the faint of heart.
Driver wellness — or lack thereof — only compounds the risks.
“We DQ (disqualify) about 300,000 drivers a year because of health issues,” noted Bob Perry of Fit to Pass. “Right now, the numbers show that a little over 50% of the current drivers out there are operating on either a one-year or a 90-day (medical certification) card. When that happens, you’ve got to really change — and if you don’t, they can take you out of service.”
The causal evidence contributing to this situation isn’t hard to find. A simple internet search yields multiple health studies that show truck drivers are, by and large, much less healthy than the general population, and therefore more at risk for various chronic diseases.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), truck drivers are twice as likely to be obese, smoke, and/or develop diabetes, opening up a range of related health problems. Not unrelated to this, the CDC reports, less than 25% of male and 20% of female drivers exercise for the recommended 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
However according to Dr. Bethany Dixon, owner of Driver’s Health Clinics, which operates clinics located in truck stops, there is a severe lack of knowledge on health and wellness.
“I deal with a lot of obesity-related health conditions. I see the same drivers year after year after year, putting on 10, 15, 20 pounds a year. It’s commonplace and very, very dangerous,” she shared, adding that obesity can often be linked to other conditions.
“Diabetes is the top condition I end up diagnosing during a DOT physical,” she continued. “There are lots of times I’ve had to explain what diabetes is, how it happens. There are many (drivers) who are truly are not aware of it.”
Equally common are the many wear-and-tear injuries the job exacts on drivers; things Dixon also sees routinely.
“I see a lot of shoulder injuries from throwing straps, and low back injuries from either poor posture or not properly sitting in the seat,” she said. “Going down the road, hitting potholes repetitively is very intense and can cause wear-and-tear injuries on the spine and the back — especially if your posture isn’t correct in that seat. You go down that road hitting all of those vibrations constantly, it’s very difficult on your body.”
The good news is, that just like the general population, truck drivers can greatly improve their health and wellness by executing a few simple changes that add up over time.
“There’s nothing more challenging, even just on an individual level, than for someone to be like, ‘Dude, you’ve got diabetes, you have high blood pressure. You need to stop eating everything you like that you’ve ever had before,’” explained Hope Zvara, founder of Mother Trucking Yoga.
“That’s overwhelming, but it’s the overhaul approach many people take when it comes to wellness, just completely overhaul your life,” she added. “Instead of trying to fix your food and fix your blood pressure and fix your flexibility and fix your strength, let’s just pick one. Go all in on it (on that one area) and be successful, and then over a period of time, pick another. That is the long haul.”
On the dietary side, Perry said simple planning — “baby steps,” if you will — can go a long way to improving food intake to include better options.
“I can’t run you around that truck enough times to outrun your diet,” Perry said. “You’ve got to watch what you put in your mouth. Learn to do a pre-trip fridge check; always make sure you’ve got some better snacks to reach for.”
Dixon echoed the baby steps mentality and stressed the importance of taking advantage of any healthy options at the truck stop rather than just ordering fast food out of habit.
“Truck stops are trying to integrate healthier food,” she said. “Many always have fresh fruit and vegetables and are bringing in healthier protein bars, healthier drinks. But it’s about choices, right? It’s a matter of the driver choosing to buy the trail mix as a better option than a candy bar.
“It’s the same for truck stops that have started to build gyms or have a basketball court or a walking track,” she added. “They’re trying to offer those services, but a lot of people are not using them. Some of the truck stops that have put those gyms in have since taken them back out because they’re not getting used.”
Zvara said an important element of exercise success is to find an activity you like and that fits into your lifestyle, adding that one reason the Mother Trucker Yoga concept works is because it’s been customized to be practical for drivers, regardless of their age, size or flexibility.
“The gap in a lot of fitness and wellness programs is they’re still trying to give you the whole pizza and not even cut the pieces apart,” she said. “I’m not asking drivers to do a headstand in the cab of the truck. We break (yoga) down into functional, practical steps for drivers, taking what is good of yoga and translating it into a practical application for a driver.”
Perry, Dixon and Zvara agree that carrier culture and support play a vital role in ensuring driver health. The return on such investments is seeing fewer drivers being out sick or injured while, at the same time, boosting recruitment and retention.
“You see headlines all the time of companies investing in 150 new trucks or a brand-new shop or whatever,” Zvara said. “That’s great, but if you don’t have healthy drivers, none of that matters. I think if companies paid better attention to basic, low-hanging fruit issues of what your driver needs to feel healthy and successful, we’d see the industry start to turn around and start to thrive the way it should.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.