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Athlete-Turned-Trucker Seeks To Change ‘Most Unhealthy Occupation In America’

Alex Smith
Siphiwe Baleka manages the health of 3,000 drivers for Prime Inc., a trucking company based in Springfield, Missouri.

On a chilly winter morning, dozens of truck driver trainees file into a classroom at the headquarters of Prime Inc., a trucking company based in Springfield, Missouri.

At the front is Siphiwe Baleka, an energetic African American in his mid-40s. The former swimming champion delivers grim news about trucker health to the new recruits.

“If you haven’t started to think about this, you need to start right now,” Baleka says. “I’m gonna tell it to you straight, OK? You are about to enter the most unhealthy occupation in America.”   

About 70 percent of truck drivers are obese and at high risk for conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Many trucking officials worry that poor driver health is threatening the industry.

Baleka tells the new drivers he’s there to help.

He’s the company’s “driving health and fitness coach,” tasked with improving the health of the 7,000 Prime drivers who spend around 11 hours a day behind the wheel.

It’s a struggle he knows personally. Baleka, who earned a philosophy degree at Yale, was once an Olympic swimming hopeful. But about six years ago, after his professional athletic aspirations faded, he took a job as an over-the-road trucker. He found his life reduced to the inside of a cab and truck stops, where he’d rest, refuel and take comfort in convenience foods.

“Life on the road is tough. It’s lonely,” Baleka says. “There’s not a whole lot of things to make you feel good. So eating is one of the things you kind of have some freedom to make you feel good.”

Trucking’s health toll

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR
Siphiwe Baleka warns a class of driver trainees about the health perils of truck driving.

Baleka discovered just how quickly trucking can take its toll. During his first two months, the once-trim swimmer gained 15 pounds. He tried every diet and exercise routine he could find – even doing workout DVDs inside his cab at truck stops before sunrise.

He finally managed to turn his health around with a regimen that combined a low-carb, high-protein diet with short bursts of high-intensity exercise.

It worked so well that he decided to approach Prime’s management with an idea. The trucks, the trailers and their cargo are all carefully monitored while on the road. Why not do the same for the drivers themselves, using devices like heart rate and body composition monitors?

“At that time, the only thing that we didn’t have any real-time information on was the driver and the physiological state of the driver,” Baleka says. “Well, these digital health devices now allowed me to do that. I can monitor the physiology and the physical condition of the driver just like we do with a truck.”

With his voluntary health programs, Baleka encourages drivers to do short bursts of exercise to boost their metabolism, cut carbs and eat lots of protein every few hours. He remotely coaches around 3,000 drivers as they crisscross the country.

His, and Prime’s, concern isn’t just truckers’ waistlines. In the past few years, there’s been a shortage of drivers, and 20 percent of the drivers who left the field in the last year did so for health reasons, according to a recent transportation industry report. Professional drivers are required to take physicals on a regular basis, and in November alone 13,000 drivers failed.

Sitting in his office, Baleka listens over the speakerphone to a husband-and-wife driving team whose health routine got sidetracked by the weather. They explain that their exercise routine was derailed by bad weather in Oregon and ask his advice on how to adjust their regimen.

They’re among the many drivers who look upon Baleka as something of a guru.

Another is Rick Menolascina, a driver from Oregon in his late 50s who says Baleka helped him lose weight and bring down his blood pressure without requiring him to completely swear off favorite comfort foods.

“When I eat something, I know what I’m eating,” Menolascina says. “If I’m gonna eat that macaroni and cheese, I know exactly what I’m putting in my body. And sometimes I’ll pick that macaroni and cheese over a salad or some low-sodium soup or something like that. I’m making that choice because I’m human.”

Following through

Baleka’s program is a hopeful omen, says Scott Grenerth, regulatory affairs director of the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association. It’s pushing against the tide in an industry that’s been demanding more and providing less to drivers in the last few decades. Grenerth says that, rather than invest in long-term health programs, many companies now depend on a constant churn of new drivers.

“They are going to pay them the minimum amount required, give them the minimum benefits, and if they can then get someone else in to replace that person with another new person, that helps their bottom line,” Grenerth says. “And as long as they’re able to continue to do that and meet minimum safety requirements so they stay out of trouble in that regard, they’ll continue doing it.”

Nearly half of trucking companies don’t have any health programs, and many that do are focused on driver safety.

Baleka has worked as a consultant for other companies, and he says that while many are eager to talk about health, few follow through with programs he considers worthwhile.

“You’ll have things like – well, I call them gimmicks. Like a company will have a weight-loss challenge. That’s an event, not a program. Giving out information is not the same as having a system,” he says.

Baleka says that if companies are serious about taking care of the drivers who keep their businesses rolling, they need to do more.

“The question is: Are you willing to invest money in developing a real viable, ongoing program?” he says. “Or are you having this myopic, short-term outlook where you want to have something, and you want to say you’re offering, but it’s not really well thought out?”

Baleka is hoping his health approach will find traction with an even larger audience. He’s written a book, “4-Minute Fit: The Metabolism Accelerator for the Time-Crunched, Deskbound and Stressed Out,” which provides trucker health tips for nontruckers. It’s scheduled to be published in March by Simon & Schuster.

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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