Gaston Töpfer, a long-haul driver with Erb Transport, has plans to run a half marathon. On its own, that may not sound terribly impressive. It’s pretty amazing if you know that not so many months ago, Töpfer was having trouble playing with his kids for more than a few minutes due to his weight.
Truck drivers aren’t typically seen as poster children for healthy living, with a lifestyle offering limited and often unhealthy food options and long hours of sedentary driving.
As the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability enforcement program turns its weighty, federal eye on the wellness of truck drivers, so too is the trucking industry. And there are signs that companies who help their drivers get and stay healthy could gain an advantage in recruiting and retention.
About three years ago, the Truckload Carriers Association decided to take on the problem of driver wellness, according to TCA Vice President of Development Debbie Sparks, and created Trucking’s Weight Loss Showdown.
In Sparks’ opinion, gained from her conversations with company owners, whether a company has a health and wellness program currently influences fewer than 15% of drivers on their decision to stay with a company or to move to a new one. By next year, however, Sparks believes that number will increase to 35%.
“There’s this groundswell that is happening in the industry when it comes to health and wellness. So many carriers are coming to us and asking for help to improve the health of their drivers,” Sparks says.
When Sparks made a connection with someone from the Lindora Medical Weight Loss Clinics, Trucking’s Weight Loss Showdown was born. Lindora had previously done a successful weight loss competition between local motorcycle police forces.
“I had never thought of making weight loss fun,” Sparks says. “I liked the idea so much that that started the groundwork for what became the Trucking’s Weight Loss Showdown.”
Lindora worked to develop a program specifically for truck drivers, called Lean-for-Life On-the-Road. The program features a step-by-step diet plan using everyday food people can buy in the grocery store, and each dieter is assigned a coach to talk with each week.
In 2012, TCA and Lindora ran two 10-week weight loss competitions, and teams have been selected for the third showdown. In the first two, 204 participants lost a total of 4,636 pounds.
The first TCA Trucking’s Weight Loss Showdown had 11 teams, each team composed of 12 members – six drivers and six staff. The winning team was Prime Inc., whose team lost 15.3% of their starting weight.
“After the success of our first weight loss competition, we knew we had to do another one. We had carriers actually joining the association so they could benefit from our health and wellness programs,” Sparks says.
TCA’s second showdown was held in the last few months of 2012, and six teams participated. The winner of the second challenge was Erb Transport, Ontario, Canada. The 12-person team lost a total of 315 pounds over the 10-week period.
Erb Transport began its health and wellness initiatives about four to five years ago. Programs included a fitness challenge, with a website where employees could track their activity and compete against others, as well as a cookbook for nutritious meal choices, according to David Dietrich, Erb’s vice president of human resources.
In 2012, they decided to participate in TCA’s second Trucking’s Weight Loss Showdown. They were overwhelmed with people who wanted to participate.
“We actually had to draw names to form a team. We were really quite thrilled with the response,” Dietrich says.
One of those chosen was Töpfer, who had been a driver with Erb for two years.
“I had gotten to a point where I was really unhappy with myself about my weight,” he says. “My weight has been a lifelong issue with me, but I realized that I could hardly play with my kids anymore. It was time to do something.”
Töpfer’s official starting weight was 315 pounds. He continued to drive over the road, and would prepare his meals for the entire week on his one day at home. A refrigerator in his truck helped him have all of his meals and snacks ready to go when he wanted them.
Töpfer was able to talk with his Lindora coach while he was out on the road. Eventually, he also added exercise into his weight loss program, and now runs about three times a week.
“The first run I did was over 3 miles, but I was pretty much dying by the end. But I kept going, and it got easier and I was able to shave off time. Now, I park at the truckstop, go for a run, hit the shower and eat before I go to bed,” Töpfer says.
At the end of the 10-week challenge, Töpfer had lost 70 pounds to weigh in at 245 pounds and came in second place in the individual challenge. Töpfer went on to complete another 10-week program and now weighs in at 190 pounds.
Before starting the program, Töpfer had sleep apnea, borderline high blood pressure and was borderline diabetic. He no longer suffers from any of those medical problems.
“I am so much healthier now. I can’t say it was easy. Every trucker who is overweight should do something about it, but you have to be motivated and really be committed to it. It takes planning,” he says.
Töpfer’s next step is to train for and run a half marathon.
It’s this kind of physical and lifestyle changes that TCA is working toward.
“This program has been a home run for the health and wellness of the driver,” Sparks says.
“Several years ago, we did a health and wellness initiative, but it didn’t take off. Now there’s really excitement about doing these types of things in the industry. Health and wellness are truly going to be a fundamental change in our industry.”