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May 16, 2016 3:15 AM, EDT

‘Fittest Trucker’ Crusades for Health

Transplace

This story appears in the May 16 print edition of Transport Topics.

SAN ANTONIO — A former world-class swimmer who earned accolades as the “fittest truck driver in America” is on a campaign to improve the poor state of truck dri-ver health.

Truck driving is the most unhealthy profession in America and has the highest rate of obesity, said Siphiwe Baleka, a driver turned fitness trainer for Springfield, Missouri- based Prime Inc.

“Sixty-nine percent of America’s truck drivers are obese,” Baleka told a group of shippers and third-party logistics executives meeting here at a May 10 session at the 2016 Transplace Symposium. “Truck drivers are dying 10 to 15 years earlier than the average North American male.”

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, longhaul truck drivers’ prevalence of obesity is at 69% — twice as high as the national working population at 31%.

MORE FROM SIPHIWE BALEKA: Appears live on LiveOnWeb on Driver Health, Wellness From A to Zzzzz — May 18, noon EDT

Baleka calls the poor state of truck driver health an “epidemic” and public safety issue.

Truck drivers most often say they don’t eat healthy or exercise because they lack motivation, Baleka said.

“But I let them know that motivation is not the problem,” he said. “Every single day, you do things you don’t want to do and that you don’t like doing, but you do them anyway. You have a faculty within you that will override your supposed lack of motivation.”

Baleka, who swam for Yale and was the first African-American named to the All-Ivy League swim team, said he missed out on qualifying for the Olympics by eight-tenths of a second. After his dream was extinguished, he traveled the globe for more than a decade before deciding to become a truck driver for Prime.

After being on the road for only two months, Baleka said he gained 15 pounds, or 10% of his body weight.

“That was the moment I realized I had to take responsibility for my health and fitness while I was out on the road,” he said. “Otherwise, I was going to end up a statistic.”

At that point, he realized that he was essentially “living in a box,” didn’t have access to a kitchen, had food storage issues and wasn’t able to visit the local farmer’s market.

“I might as well have been an astronaut living in outer space,” he said.

Baleka said he got some funny looks and comments from drivers the first few times he hopped out of his cab and went though his fitness routine while parked at truck stops.

Because, he said, the industry overall hasn’t done enough to ensure that drivers are fit or eat healthy, he realized a business opportunity was staring him in the face. He created his own fitness system centering on increasing his metabolic rate.

Prime later created a position for him to help keep the carrier’s drivers more fit, and he formed his own consulting company, Fitness Trucking.

Now his job, and passion, are to convince drivers that they can’t afford not to exercise and eat right.

Baleka said drivers can increase their metabolic rate, the key to losing weight, by moving at maximum intensity in four-minute stretches and by trading carbs for protein meals every three hours.

So far, he said, truckers who participate in his 13-week program lose 19 pounds on average, but others shed far more weight.

“I have a big dream that’s impossible, to take the most unhealthy occupation and make it a model for corporate wellness,” Baleka said. “There are people out there who believe that if truck drivers can do it, anybody in America can do it.”