Truck driving takes a toll on health

Poor eating, lack of exercise plague long-haul drivers

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Even the scenic beauty of a North Idaho summer cannot lure some long-haul truck drivers far from their rigs during rest stops near Coeur d'Alene.

Opportunities for exercise await at the green rest areas along the interstate, or at truck stops, but some drivers say they are too tired, hungry, or time-constrained to use them despite potential benefits to body and mood.

"In summer we try and walk, but honestly, you eat," said long-haul driver Serena McNamara at the Flying J truck stop in Post Falls in July.

McNamara, 43, has been driving for three years with her husband, Robert, an 18-year trucking veteran. The pair have not seen their Reno, Nev., home in four months. Their wheels roll 24 hours a day, except for fueling and for mandated 30-minute breaks every eight hours. One sleeps while the other drives.

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers held about 1,585,300 jobs nationally according to the most recent estimate by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tractor-trailer truckers are typically long-haul drivers who deliver goods over intercity or interstate routes in trucks weighing more than 26,000 pounds. They drive for long periods and sleep away from home, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

McNamara said both she and Robert suffer from "trucker's leg." The neuromuscular condition piriformis syndrome, sometimes called "wallet sciatica," can be caused by prolonged sitting. It causes pain and a characteristic limp, a result of nerve compression that causes the piriformis muscle, located in the buttocks near the hip joint, to spasm.

The McNamaras - Serena, 5-foot-4 and about 125 pounds, and Robert, 6-foot-2 and 292 pounds - do most of their cooking in the truck. It is cheaper and healthier to buy supplies and have Robert, the better chef, make meals, than to eat the fast food common at truck stops.

A report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released in January 2014 showed that 69 percent of the long-haul truck drivers surveyed were obese, and 27 percent reported no moderate or vigorous physical activity for 30 minutes in the preceding seven days.

"In the three years I've been in the truck I've gained about 30 pounds. It surprised me - it's not that I eat more," said Serena, who worries that her husband, at 50, is less interested in weight reduction than she.

So how do truckers stay fit on a job that can put them at risk for conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, blood clots, and obesity?

"They don't," said Tom Tomlinson, about many of his peers.

Tomlinson, who had also stopped at the Flying J in July, has nearly 40 years trucking experience, and has seen the toll months and years on the road can take on those less disciplined. He keeps 25-pound barbells in his cab, and maintains a weight of just less than 200 pounds on his trim, 6-foot-1-inch frame.

"I keep pretty active, and during the mandatory 10-hour break I walk as long as I have time for," said Tomlinson, who drives for a Wisconsin-based company.

Tomlinson's road diet consists largely of the healthy sandwiches and yogurt he stocks in his cab's mini-refrigerator before leaving his Tower, Minn., home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that to improve health, adults 18 to 64 should get two hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, such as brisk walking, or one hour and fifteen minutes of vigorous activity like jogging, in addition to muscle-strengthening activities two or more days per week.

If 150 minutes - comparable to the time spent watching a movie - sounds like a lot of time, the agency says that 10 minutes at a time is fine as long as moderate or vigorous effort is maintained.

Serena McNamara said she tries to walk 10 laps around the truck - approximately one mile - every other day. The winter will be different, she expects. "I'm stuck in the truck with the stretchy bands."

Josh Skinner, 26, a third-generation trucker with five years of experience, said unloading his freight at the receiving end is his main form of exercise, though not every job allows it.

"Really, it's all about eating," said Skinner at the Love's truck stop in Post Falls in July. Skinner eats only one full meal a day and looks for healthy fare at truck stops. "We're not burning calories, we're just holding the steering wheel," the north Georgia native said.

On a typical day, Skinner, who credits a high metabolism for his taut, 5-foot-9-inch, 175-pound frame, wakes after about 6.5 hours sleep, a lifelong habit. Coffee, shower-and-dress, and "something cold to get ready" concludes his breakfast routine. Throughout the day Skinner sips Gatorade and Mountain Dew in the truck, and snacks on pistachios.

Martha Raidl, a Ph.D. and registered dietitian with the Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences at University of Idaho-Boise, said research varies on whether the body burns more energy if meals are smaller and spaced throughout the day versus eating one large meal.

"It can be hard on your system if you eat all your calories at one time," by raising cholesterol and triglyceride levels, Raidl said.

Roger Zarowny, an instructor at the SAGE Truck Driving School in Coeur d'Alene and 11-year long-haul veteran, said obesity is "absolutely" a problem in the trucking industry, but a manageable one.

When Zarowny started driving trucks in the 1990s he weighed 275 pounds, and three years later weighed 330, after eating fewer healthy foods and being less physically active.

Zarowny got rollerblades and a portable trampoline on which to jog in place, a reliable means of exercising in unfamiliar, potentially dangerous neighborhoods. He began eating better, hydrating, and following the advice of a cardiologist who told him, "'If it crinkles when you open it - don't eat it.'"

Many activities that other workers attend to routinely can be postponed for months at a time or longer by truckers for whom time is money.

Regular medical check-ups are "few and far between," said Serena McNamara, who cannot remember her last general check-up.

"If this truck's not rolling I'm not making any money, so a mammogram is not going to happen," McNamara said.

The McNamaras will relocate soon to northeastern Nevada and take local trucking jobs rather than long-haul.

"We're getting off the truck," Serena said. "We'll miss this but it's worth it - the health issues are worth it."

Rob West, 35, a trucker from Lakeland, Fla., rejects that fitness is impossible while on the road. "It's easy," West said. "I put on my hiking shoes and go."

West, who spent a night at the Huetter, Idaho, rest stop off Interstate 90 last month, said he gets out of the truck as frequently as he can.

Staying healthy is important to the married father of two. West travels with a bicycle fastened to the rear of his tractor, and said when on the road he bikes three times per week, averaging 15 to 25 miles per ride.

West said he looks for rivers on his phone's global positioning system, or asks locals to direct him to good places to bike or walk.

West said it would be good if truck stops had fitness centers. "Honestly on a daily basis I think about what I'm going to do in the winter. Maybe I'll get snowshoes."

The 6-foot, 260-pound West also said a healthy diet is possible for long-haul truckers. "Tonight I'm grilling rib-eye and zucchini," West said. "I don't eat fries, rarely I'll eat a burger," mentioning popular truck stop fare. "I've got a crockpot - I can make a roast while I'm driving."

West said snacking throughout the day on proteins like pistachios and beef jerky helps keep his metabolism up and prevents the evening binging that plagues many drivers who eat only one large meal per day.

"I don't drink as much coffee as some other drivers, or smoke, so I don't have those (appetite) suppressants," said West, who said that many of his wholesome traveling habits are aided by a fitness program he joined through his trucking company, Prime Inc., in Missouri.

West also said where there is a will, there is a way regarding preventive medical check-ups.

"When I went home for a few days, I went for a check-up," said West. "Done."

Hydration helps maintain alertness and aids well-being, but West said, "I hate the fact that truck stops don't recycle plastic bottles - I throw away six to eight bottles a day."

"It's a rugged 'tugged' industry for sure," West said.

The mean annual wage for long-haul truck drivers in the United States is $40,940, with a mean hourly wage of $19.68, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Idaho the figures are $36,800 and $17.69, in a state with approximately 11,160 truck drivers. About 480 live in and around Coeur d'Alene.

Bill Rodgers, 76, an owner-operator in Post Falls with 60 years experience in the trucking business, said at a recent truck show in Post Falls that long-haul trucking poses many risks to health, physical and emotional, but they can be managed.

"The best thing I'd find personally to do is get out of the truck every two hours, and stay away from fast food. It used to be easier," he said.

A long-haul driver for about 12 years, Rodgers said the job was different when he was on the road for two or three weeks at a time in the 1950s and '60s. Avoiding fast food was easier when truck stops had diner-type options.

"Even in a greasy spoon they'd make healthier food if you asked," Rodgers said.

Married now for 54 years, Rodgers said he combatted the stress of being away from his family by phoning home daily and discussing family matters as they appeared.

Now weighing 212 pounds at 5-foot-9-inches, Rodgers said he was lighter when driving long-haul because he got more exercise unloading freight and strapping down loads.

Rodgers said he drank more coffee on the road, but that his eating habits were much the same as they were and are at home, "two good meals a day."

The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration stipulates an 11-hour daily driving limit, a 14-hour work day limit, and mandated 30-minute breaks every eight hours. After driving 70 hours in a week, a trucker must rest for 34 consecutive hours.

Rodgers said the job was once more favorable to driver discretion about rest and replenishment. "The guys today are running under a clock with dispatchers watching them on electronic logs and GPS."

A trucker today who exercised personal judgement to stop to stretch or nap would have those hours deducted from allowable drive time in a job with constant pressure to deliver.

On whether the regulations promote safety, Josh Skinner said, "It's a bunch of people up in Washington (D.C.) making laws that never even drove a truck."

A father of two with a third child expected, Skinner said "It makes truckers do everything they can to make up for the time because they know they will be forced to take 34 hours at end of the week."

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