Siphiwe Baleka knows firsthand the challenges of staying fit while driving a large vehicle for a living.
After traveling the world and volunteering for nonprofits and missionary work, Baleka returned to the States and took on a career as a long-haul truck driver.
Earlier in life, at Yale University, Baleka had become the first African-American named to the All-Ivy-League Swim Team. But when he settled into the routines of truck driving, he quickly saw his waistline expand.
Not one to admit defeat, Baleka was determined to get back into shape. He eventually developed a fitness program that truck drivers can fit into their on-the-road schedules — working out for just 15 minutes at a time, often right next to their trucks. Baleka also got back into competitive swimming and even delved into Ironman triathlons.
At Missouri-based trucking company Prime Inc., Baleka moved into a new role: driver health and fitness coach. He also founded his own consulting business, Fitness Trucking. In both endeavors, he works to reverse the tide of obesity among the nation’s truck drivers while also dealing with related safety issues like fatigue.
Baleka also sees a need to improve driver health and fitness in the school bus world, a message he brought to the National Association for Pupil Transportation Summit as a keynote speaker on Sunday morning.
Baleka recently talked with School Bus Fleet Executive Editor Thomas McMahon about how he got into trucking, how he got fit, and the challenges that truck drivers and school bus drivers share.
SBF: When and how did you get into truck driving?
Siphiwe Baleka: I got into truck driving in my late 30s. I had to make a career change. I had been traveling around the world and working in nonprofit work and missionary-type work and was burnt out. That’s a labor of love. It was a passion. I would find causes in groups that I believed in and then volunteer my services. But at the end of the day, even though I had all these great experiences and then traveled around the world, I didn’t have any money, and I needed to do something different.
I had a friend who was a truck driver. He said, “Hey, Sip, you should get into trucking. It suits your nomadic lifestyle, and you can save a lot of money. And you’ve got plenty of time to think about what you want to do next.” It made sense, and I just decided, “Yeah. I’ll try to drive a truck.” That was in 2008.
What did you find about the health challenges of that profession when you got into it?
One, you don’t get a lot of sleep. Two, when you do get to sleep, it’s always interrupted. Three, you do whatever is most convenient, in terms of managing your time and your day-to-day activities, including what you eat and your entertainment. And doing what’s convenient isn’t always conducive to being healthy. Another result I saw very quickly: The first two months of my driving career, I had gained 10.7% of my body weight.
So you realized that there was that challenge, and you were experiencing it yourself. What did you do at that point?
Well, I wouldn’t say I realized it. I would say I saw it. I looked in the mirror and I saw love handles for the first time in my life. And that was the moment I realized if I didn’t take responsibility for my health while I was out on the road, I was going to end up like the 86% of America’s truck drivers that are overweight and the 69% that are obese. I literally saw that I was on that path.
So how did you turn that around? What did you do?
Well, the first thing I did is what most people and what most truckers do: I started haphazardly doing pushups and situps and “watching what I eat.” Literally watching the food — this is green, this is blue, this is yellow. And I wasn’t getting any results. That was the moment I realized I needed a system. I needed a step-by-step, focused, daily plan of action that would answer the question: What’s the most effective, least time-consuming way to build my fitness and manage my weight while I’m out on the road?
Then I started buying and using all kinds of fitness equipment and fitness programs, like P90X and GSP Rushfit and Tae Bo and Zumba and all those things. I started every kind of nutrition program: Weight Watchers, Atkins, Mediterranean diet, Paleo, “Just Breathe Air.” You name it, I tried it.
The whole experience was showing me what worked and what didn’t work in the unique environment of long-haul truck driving. Because let’s face it: You’re living in a box. You have food storage issues. You have very limited access to a gym. You’re not able to get to the local farmers market every week and buy the organic produce or go to the specialty store and get the grass-fed, hormone-free meat. Your schedule’s always changing, so you can’t even set a specific workout time.
So experience showed me that there was a nutrition and fitness program out there for everybody in America, except one that was specifically designed for long-haul trucking in its unique environment. And so I decided I would create one.
Is this something that incorporates nutrition as well as exercise? Does sleep come into it as well?
Well, at the root of the problem is sleep. What I discovered was, one, because your schedule’s always changing, it’s throwing off your circadian rhythm. And, two, because your sleep is always interrupted, those two things combine to create sleep deprivation. It accumulates every day, every week, every month, every year that you drive. The problem with that is the hormones that regulate metabolism are produced primarily in your sleep. So very quickly, truck drivers who are experiencing this sleep deprivation have their hormones altered. And it has the effect of dramatically slowing down their metabolism, where they don’t get the signal that they’re hungry and that they need to eat. So they skip meals. And since they skip meals, they don’t give their metabolism any work to do, and it slows down. Or they’re on the other end of the spectrum. They don’t get the signal that they’re full and that they need to stop eating, in which case they’re eating to fight driver fatigue all through the day and night. They’re overeating at lunch or dinner. And both of those conditions are ultimately the effects of sleep deprivation.
So I had to realize that you’re not going to change that. I had to design a program that can counteract the effects of the hormone changes, and at the same time, design a fitness program that fits into [truck drivers’] lifestyle, is convenient and doesn’t require a lot of time. And all of my experience showed me that 15 minutes was about as long as you could reasonably expect a driver to commit to, but 15 minutes done the right way at a vigorous level was long enough to get significant effects.
So would this 15 minutes typically be at a truck stop or rest stop?
Absolutely. Wherever you could fit it in. You’re at a shipper or a receiver getting loaded or unloaded. You’re at a truck stop. You’re at a rest area. You don’t always know when and where you’re going to have this 15 minutes available, but there will be some point in the day. And the goal is to be able to seize the opportunity and get it in where you can fit it in.
One of the biggest problems is most of my clients, like most of America, have this idea that in order to be effective, you’ve got to go to the gym for 30 minutes or 40 minutes or 60 minutes. You’ve got to get on the elliptical. You have to put in this amount of time. If that’s what you think, what happens when you’ve got 20 minutes of free time?
You’re not going to use it to exercise because you don’t think it’s enough, right?
Exactly. So changing the mindset, showing drivers that 15 minutes can be incredibly effective if you do it the right way, and making them buy into that and believe it is one of the biggest challenges. …
We have an eight-week Active Trucker Fitness Program, the first-ever workout app specifically for truck drivers, which has come out on the Skimble Workout Trainer app. It’s me and two of my truck drivers leading people through a workout that they can do on the side of their truck or on the side of a school bus — or pretty much anywhere.
So what kinds of parallels do you see between truck drivers and school bus drivers?
Well, there’s a lot. My girlfriend, she currently drives a truck, and before she did that, she drove a school bus. First and foremost, it’s a sedentary job, so that’s the first obvious thing that they have in common. But in addition to that, driving can be stressful. Truck drivers are carrying millions of dollars’ worth of cargo. It can be anything from foodstuffs to pharmaceuticals to construction material. School bus drivers have the most precious of cargo, our nation’s future.
When you’re driving, so many things are out of your control. There are other drivers or road conditions, and you’re responsible for these children. That can be stressful. And when you’re stressed, your body secretes cortisol, and cortisol has very negative damaging effects on your health in many different ways, including that it actually promotes the storage of visceral fat. That’s the fat that surrounds your internal organs.
So school bus drivers, like truck drivers, they’re sitting, they can be stressed because of the conditions, they’re secreting cortisol, they’re gaining weight. … They need something that they can do right on the side of their school bus and build it into their normal daily activities.
Baleka’s consulting business, Fitness Trucking, is available to customize wellness programs for transportation carriers, including school bus operations. For more information, go to www.siphiwebaleka.com.