Long-haul trucking can be physically debilitating. Without much opportunity for exercise, and with fast food often the most convenient form of sustenance, drivers have a hard time not packing on the pounds. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), long-haul drivers have almost double the rate of obesity in comparison to the general public. That leads to a much higher risk for other health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. But now a real solution could be on the way.
Driver health is, of course, important in its own right. America’s economy in large part depends upon its professional drivers, and it is to everyone’s best interest to provide these men and women a work environment that is productive and healthy. But with current conditions, worsening health is a likely reason why so many drivers leave the field so quickly. The driver shortage has eased somewhat in recent years, but it is still on track to reach 175,000 by 2024 and annual turnover is around 83 percent, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA). Hiring and training a driver can cost three times his or her annual salary—not helping drivers stay healthy is expensive.
Most seriously for the general public, one of the problems associated with obesity is sleep apnea, a condition that prevents sufferers from getting adequate rest. Exhausted driving is a major risk factor for accidents. Although trucks crash much less often than private vehicles, they are more likely to kill other people when they do. Five years ago, 85 percent of those killed in large truck crashes were not the drivers themselves, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Now, thanks to a $2.6 million government grant, the National Institute of Health (NIH) is attempting to address the problem using a new program called SHIFT (Safety and Health Involvement for Truckers). In partnership with the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), SHIFT is a 6-month program designed for truckers that combines competition, computer-based training, behavioral self-monitoring, and motivational interviewing—all tactics shown to help with weight loss in previous scientific studies.
So far, SHIFT has only been implemented as a pilot study, but the results suggest the program works better than earlier weight-loss interventions aimed at truckers. Participants significantly changed their diets and lost an average of almost eight pounds over the six-month program.
Of course, the key question is whether participants can maintain their healthier lifestyles after SHIFT is over. Most previous studies did not collect follow-up data, but those that did showed that participants maintained less than a third of their weight-loss after a year. Whether SHIFT can do better is unclear, although follow-up interviews 30 months after the pilot program was over showed that some participants did maintain their weight loss and some lost additional weight. The addition of a maintenance component to the program would probably improve results.
SHIFT is just a pilot program for now, but it does show promise. And if America’s long-haul truckers can get the support they need to work safer and healthier, that will be better for everybody.