Truck stops adapting to improve truckers’ health

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In this June 14, 2012, photo, Rick Limitone, manager of Snap Fitness, posses for a photo at the truck stop gym in Dallas. From trucking companies embracing wellness and weight-loss programs to gyms being installed at truck stops, momentum has picked up in recent years to help those who make their living driving big rigs get into shape. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

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From trucking companies embracing wellness and weight-loss programs to gyms being installed at truck stops, momentum has picked up in recent years to help those who make their living driving big rigs get into shape.

“I think a lot of trucking companies are coming around to the idea that their drivers are their assets,” said Boyd Stephenson of the American Trucking Associations, the industry’s largest national trade association. He added that healthier employees help a company’s bottom line.

There’s an additional incentive for truckers to stay in shape — their job might depend on their health.

Every two years, they must pass a physical exam required by U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. They’re checked for conditions that might cause them to become incapacitated — suddenly or gradually — while driving, including severe heart conditions, high blood pressure and respiratory disorders.

While there are no weight restrictions, a commercial driver who has been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea and isn’t undergoing treatment will not get a medical certificate. Sleep apnea, more common among those who are overweight, leads to daytime sleepiness, a danger on long drives.

But there are obstacles for truck drivers who are mindful of their health. In addition to being seated for many hours at a time, eating options are usually limited to places with parking lots big enough to accommodate their tractor-trailers — most often truck stops, which historically have not been known for wholesome food or workout equipment.

That’s something truck stop chains have been trying to change.

TravelCenters of America, which operates under the TA and Petro Stopping Centers brands, launched a program two years ago called StayFit that includes placing small, free gyms in truck stops, offering healthier eating options and half portions, mapping walking routes near truck stops and building basketball courts in some locations.

“We wanted to remove as many barriers to drivers’ health as possible,” said TravelCenters spokesman Tom Liutkus, who said the company has gyms at 42 of its more than 240 locations, with plans to outfit them all by the end of next year. He added that the gyms have had more than 30,000 users.

Gym franchiser Snap Fitness has partnered with Rolling Strong, which provides wellness programs aimed at truckers, to open gyms at Pilot Flying J locations. The first one opened south of Dallas in June: A nearly 1,000-square-foot stand-alone building filled with weights and a dozen or so machines. So far, more than 120 memberships have been sold for that gym.

“We know that we have an audience out there that needs help,” said Snap Fitness chief executive officer and founder Peter Taunton. By the end of the year, they also plan to install gyms inside Pilot Flying J truck stops in Georgia and Tennessee.

A monthly membership of about $30 also gives truckers access to Snap Fitness’ more than 1,300 gyms, Taunton said, 60 of which have tractor trailer-friendly parking.

Pilot Flying J plans to add a function to their smartphone app to help truckers identify healthy food choices at their locations and fast food restaurants. David Parmly, the company’s employee services manager, says their truck stops have adjusted recipes to make them healthier and offer oatmeal for breakfast.

Doug Robinson, a U.S. Xpress driver trying to lose weight, said that before joining a weight-loss program, he spent his evenings on the road watching television, checking Facebook and talking on the phone.

“At first I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to exercise.’ At the end of the day, I don’t want to walk. It’s all about planning,” he said. “I just had the willpower to do it.”

Bruce Moss, vice president of human relations for Con-way Freight, said they’ve found that their wellness program reduces the number of people who call in sick, lowers workplace injuries and controls health care costs. The program gives truckers access to wellness coaches and has them stretch before starting a shift.

Last year, more than 11,500 of Con-way Freight’s 21,000 employees, the majority of them drivers, consulted with wellness coaches.