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, Mo.
At the front is Siphiwe Baleka, an energetic former swimming champion in his mid-40s. He 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 said. “You are about to enter the most unhealthy occupation in America.”
That’s not an official designation, but truckers do have more health problems, compared to U.S. averages. Around 70 percent of truck drivers are obese and at high risk for conditions like heart disease and diabetes, and many in the trucking business worry that the poor health of drivers is threatening the industry.
Baleka tells the new drivers he’s here to help.
He’s the company’s coach for drivers’ health and fitness, tasked with improving the health of the 7,000 drivers for Prime; they spend around 11 hours a day behind the wheel.
It’s a struggle he knows personally. Baleka was once an Olympic hopeful, and he earned a degree in philosophy at Yale.
But about six years ago, after his professional athletic aspirations faded, he took a job as a trucker. He found his life reduced to the inside of a cab and the truck stops — where he’d rest, refuel and take comfort in convenience foods.
“Life on the road is tough. It’s lonely,” Baleka said. “There’s not a whole lot to make you feel good. So eating is one of the things you kind of have some freedom with, to make you feel good.”
Baleka discovered just how quickly trucking can take its toll. During his first two months of driving, the 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.
Eventually he turned his health around with a regimen that combined a low-carb, high-protein diet with short bursts of high-intensity exercise.
Then he approached company management with an idea. The trucks, the trailers and their cargo are all carefully monitored while on the road. Why not do the same thing for the drivers, using devices like