Personal Trainer Coaches Truckers In Best Diet, Workout Routines : Shots - Health News Once an elite swimmer and a Yale grad, Siphiwe Baleka now coaches 3,000 fellow truckers on the best ways to work out, eat right and stay connected on the road. Drivers say his wellness plan works.

Athlete-Turned-Trucker Works To Improve Truckers' Health

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Truckers are under intense pressure to rack up miles. When they get hungry, they often stop at fast food joints rather than stray from their roots for healthier offerings. That puts them at risk for conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Some fear poor driver health is threatening the industry. From KCUR in Kansas City, Alex Smith reports on a former athlete-turned-trucker who's trying to help.

ALEX SMITH, BYLINE: On a chilly winter morning, dozens of truck driver trainees file into a classroom at the headquarters of Prime Inc., a company based in Springfield, Mo. At the front is Siphwe Baleka, an energetic former swimming champion in his mid-40s who delivers grim news to the new recruits.

SIPHWE BALEKA: If you haven't started to think about this, you need to start right now. And I'm going to tell it to you straight, OK? You are about to enter the most unhealthy occupation in America.

SMITH: But Baleka says he's there to help. He's the company's driving health and fitness coach tasked with improving the health of the 7,000 Prime drivers who spend around 11 hours a day behind the wheel. It's a struggle he knows personally.

Baleka was once an Olympic hopeful, but about six years ago after his professional athletic aspirations faded, he took a job as an over-the-road trucker. He found his life reduced to the inside of a cab and the truck stops where he'd rest, refuel and take consolation in convenience foods.

BALEKA: You know, life on the road is tough. It's lonely. There's not a whole lot of things to really make you feel good. So eating is one of the things that you kind of have some freedom that can make you feel good.

SMITH: During his first two months, the trim swimmer gained 15 pounds. He says he tried every diet and exercise routine he could find, even doing workout DVDs inside his cab at truck stops before sunrise. He says he eventually turned his health around by combining a low-carb, high-protein diet with short bursts of high intensity exercise. He then approached the company management with an idea. The trucks, the trailers and their cargo are all carefully monitored while on the road.

BALEKA: At that time, the only thing that we didn't have any, you know, real-time information on was the driver. Well, these digital health devices now allowed me to do that. I can monitor the physical condition of a driver just like we do with a truck.

SMITH: This is entirely voluntary for Prime's drivers. They get an activity tracker and keep logs on smartphone apps. Baleka watches their data and helps them manage their diet and exercise. And it's for more than the sake of truckers' waistlines.

During the past few years, there's been a shortage of drivers, and that's due in part to health. A recent transportation industry report shows 20 percent of drivers who left the field in the last year did it for health reasons.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yesterday, there was a bad winter storm.

SMITH: About 3,000 drivers have signed up for Baleka's coaching.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We really couldn't get out of the truck.

SMITH: As husband and wife driving team even called while I was in his office.

BALEKA: Chances are you can run in place, or you can shadowbox.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, so...

SMITH: Baleka is treated almost like a celebrity by drivers passing through the headquarters, like Rick Menolascina, who's hanging out here for a few days while his truck is being repaired. He's a driver in his late-50s who says Baleka helped him lose weight and bring down his blood pressure. Just paying attention to food and exercise was critical, and he didn't have to completely swear off his favorite comfort foods.

RICK MENOLASCINA: If I'm going to eat that macaroni and cheese, I know exactly what I'm putting in my body. And sometimes I'll make that choice because I'm human (laugher), you know?

SMITH: Nearly half of trucking companies don't have any health programs. And many of those that do are focused on driving safety. Baleka says that while many are eager to talk about health, few follow through with programs he considers worthwhile. For NPR News, I'm Alex Smith in Kansas City.

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SIEGEL: That story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR, KCUR and Kaiser Health News.

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