Oct. 17, 2012 -- John Drury is a rare breed. At 6-foot-7 and 340 pounds he is a trucker who is also a dance fitness instructor. He cares a great deal about his health, but admits it's tough to keep in shape when you're behind the wheel 11 hours a day, often for weeks at a time.
"Last year, I lost 100 pounds driving a truck and dancing. In the last seven months I've gained back 40 pounds," Drury says of his constant battle with weight.
Like the rest of America's 3.5 million truckers, staying healthy on the road is a challenge for Drury. There are few opportunities to eat anywhere other than truck stops, and they aren't exactly famous for offering calorie-conscious meals. Opportunities to move and access to health care are also few and far between.
As a result, truckers are in bad shape. More than 50 percent of them are obese -? nearly twice the national obesity rate -- and they have a 50 percent higher prevalence of diabetes compared to the general population, according to National Institute of Health statistics.
Hopefully the situation is about to change. Companies who promote wellness have begun to view truckers as an ideal target for their services.
Arlington-based Snap Fitness, in conjunction with the wellness company Rolling Strong is opening gyms at truck stops nationwide. The first one is a 1,000 square foot facility located at the Flying J on Interstate 20 in Dallas, one of the busiest truck routes in the country.
For about $20 a month, drivers now have access to free weights and cardio machines. Their membership also entitles them to access at any of the 1,400 regular Snap Fitness facilities, 60 of which have tractor-trailer friendly parking lots.
"Truckers have huge unmet needs because of their lifestyle. Hopefully, the fitness centers help fill the void," said Gary Findley, Snap's chief operating officer.
Since opening about five months ago, 120 truckers have signed up.
Besides their Snap partnership, Rolling Strong offers truckside health evaluations that include a blood pressure check, body fat measurement and weigh in. They provide printed workout manuals plus a special internet health channel where truckers can log on for fitness classes and videos promoting healthy lifestyle habits.
Later this year, they will be introducing an exercise kit for in-cab workouts and a line of sandwiches made with natural ingredients that will be sold alongside the usual fried and battered truck stop fare. A series of roadside health clinics is also in the works.
Bob Perry, founder of Rolling Strong was a trucker himself. His two brothers are truckers. His father was a trucker for 50 years. He said his company's initiatives are essential for improving the lives of truckers.
"Truckers are the ones who carry the country," he said. "They deserve access to fitness centers and good food and health care like the rest of us."
Trucking companies have begun to embrace health and fitness initiatives for their big rig road warriors. Eleven major carriers participated in the Truckload Carriers Association's Trucking's Weight Loss Showdown this past spring, with each carrier signing up 12 employees, half of them drivers. Last year, more than 11,500 of Con-way Freight's 21,000 employees consulted with wellness coaches. And U.S. Xpress has a points system for drivers that rewards healthy behaviors with cash.
The programs are aimed at reducing the number of drivers who call in sick, lowering on-the-job injuries and controlling health care costs. But they're also intended to keep drivers on the road.
Drivers are required by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to take a physical exam every two years. They're checked for issues like heart conditions, diabetes and respiratory disorders that could incapacitate them while driving. Any driver who doesn't pass the exam immediately loses driving privileges.
Troy Robbins, a trucker for the past seven years, was pulled off the road last November for high blood sugar and a host of other potentially dangerous health problems. He says in the past he had few options for losing weight and improving his health, but this time around his company enrolled him in an intensive Rolling Strong program.
For three months he attended health classes and worked out with a personal trainer. He consulted with a health coach and learned how to lead a healthier life while on the road. He whittled his weight down 70 pounds, lowered his blood sugar and is back to driving.
"The program has made such a difference for me. Instead of just going to bed when I hit a stop, I now go for long walks and I've learned how to eat better too," he said.
Bob Perry hopes this is just the start of a trend towards a nation of healthier drivers.
"We need to change the trucker culture so obesity and bad health aren't the norm," he said. "We need to keep them going so they can continue to do their jobs and get home healthy and happy to their families."