If you know anything about trucking, you won’t be surprised to hear that over-the-road truck drivers have a life expectancy that’s 12 to 16 years shorter than the average American man. It’s a job that combines long, sedentary hours behind the wheel; the constant high stress of piloting a large, heavy combination vehicle in traffic and at high speeds; shifting sleep cycles in a 24/7 business; and limited choices as to when, where and what to eat.

“As an industry, we spend a lot of money on equipment, but the most important assets are the people,” says Don Lacy, director of safety for truckload carrier Prime Inc.

Believing that “a healthy driver is a safer driver,” Prime decided to address the issue with a health and fitness program specifically designed for a driver’s lifestyle. And to establish and run that program, the fleet hired a full-time coach who combines experience as both a truck driver and a high-level athlete.

Siphiwe Baleka was a highly successful competitive swimmer while he was a student at Yale University, but once he graduated, he gave up competition to travel around the world. Eighteen years later, looking for a way to earn a living while he figured out the next stage of his life, Baleka went through Prime’s driving school and became a leased owner-operator with the fleet for three years.

While he enjoyed the new job, he also noticed that the lifestyle was having a less positive effect on his weight and health, so he began training to compete in triathlons as he drove. The training routine he developed involved exercises he could do in or around the truck in 30 min. or less, as well as ways to eat a healthier diet. Those efforts not only brought him success as a master-class triathlete, but also led him to develop a series of 29 DVDs to share his program with other drivers.

Prime was so impressed with the DVDs that it began offering them through its online training website. Then this summer it hired Baleka full-time as its first driver health and fitness coach.

Baleka’s basic program runs 13 weeks, teaching drivers how to eat and exercise on the road so they can achieve healthy body weights and maintain them. Drivers, who pay an initial fee of $300 as a sign of commitment, apply online. Once accepted, they attend a one-day orientation class and receive program materials and exercise equipment. Baleka checks in with each driver daily, offering small, incremental changes to their routine with the goal being weight loss of about 1 lb. a week. He also checks their progress on a daily 15-min. exercise routine that includes 31 bodyweight exercises that can be completed in or alongside the truck. Once every four weeks, each driver is routed through Prime’s Springfield, MO, headquarters for an in-depth consultation and biometric evaluation. Every driver who completes the 13-week program is then reimbursed $300.

To date, three classes have completed the program, achieving on average a weight loss of 1.3 to 2 lbs. per week, according to Baleka. By the end of the 13 weeks, he says, the techniques they’ve learned have simply become part of healthier lifestyles that should stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Baleka also has a class to help drivers with more ambitious fitness goals such as training for and competing in triathlons. Not only is Prime’s driver health and fitness program a success on the individual level, but it is also having a positive impact on the fleet’s driver recruitment and retention, says Lacy. “When you offer people a way to extend their lives and feel better, it sends a message that we care about our drivers, that we want them to have a long and healthy life.”