School Bus Drivers Carpool to Better Health

Hours before the sun comes up, Betty Miller wheels her school bus from the depot and beings a long day in the driver's seat.

Miller, 60, loves the work, but she knows it hasn't been good to her body. Between morning and afternoon bus shifts over the course of 27 years, she has gained weight and takes a daily cocktail of blood pressure and cholesterol medications.

"I don't want anything to happen to my kids," Miller said, her eyes full of worry. "If I'm sick and not taking care of myself, I can pass out behind the wheel. I can -- anything can happen."

VIDEO: School bus drivers exercisePlay

But things changed last year for Miller and a fleet of other bus drivers in Broward County, Fla. District bus drivers were given free gym memberships, access to blood pressure-testing machines and workout routines as part of a national campaign called Blood Pressure Downshift.

Now, three to four times a week, several dozen drivers can be found in the local gym, lifting free weights, walking off pounds on the treadmill -- even taking belly dancing classes.

"Before these interventions, drivers would be sedentary, they'd be sitting in the lounge in between routes -- playing cards, watching television, they would be frying up food right on site and now they're going to the gym," said Tina Severance-Fonte, Broward County school board wellness coordinator. "They're more health-conscious and they're taking their health seriously."

On days that Miller doesn't feel like hitting the gym, her co-workers are her motivation.

"They make it easy," she said. "We motivate one another. We call one another, 'I know you're ready to go to the gym, meet me at the gym.' Even on our days off, over the holidays, we all went to the gym."

There are a lot of reasons for a school board to want healthy bus drivers. Federal transportation law says that bus and truck drivers can't stay behind the wheel if their blood pressure gets too high. High blood pressure puts drivers at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke, which could endanger their passengers.

District Driving for Lower Blood Pressure

Another reason is that lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and body weight is smart business for the district.

"Those types of health conditions translate into high claims. The school board wants to save lives and reduce claims," said Severance-Fonte.

The drivers are not only enjoying themselves, but have seen fantastic results.

"I think I've seen a reduction in stress," said Mary Grisham, a 22-year veteran bus driver. "With the economy like it is ... you can come here, unwind and relax and forget about everything that is going on."

Bus driver Aurora Oliphant, 61, says that she's conquered her blood pressure problems.

"I don't take medication for sugar and my blood pressure is under control," said Oliphant.

Miller's habits have also changed. She doesn't just exercise; she also gave up eating fried food and soda. Now, 10 pounds lighter, she's off of most of her medications.

"I feel good about myself. I can feel and see my body tightening up ... I'm stronger. Feel right there," she said, pointing to her triceps muscle.

Who says you can't teach an old driver new tricks?