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Push for healthier truck drivers gaining momentum

A customer exercised at a Snap Fitness Rolling Strong Gym at a Dallas truck stop. There are plans for more locations.

LM OTERO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

A customer exercised at a Snap Fitness Rolling Strong Gym at a Dallas truck stop. There are plans for more locations.

DALLAS — In the months after Doug Robinson started driving a truck, he noticed his clothes were increasingly more snug-fitting. He was already overweight but soon realized that spending up to 11 hours behind the wheel, frequently eating fast food, and not exercising was a poor combination.

When his employer, US Xpress, took part in a weight-loss challenge sponsored by the Truckload Carriers Association, the 321-pound, 6-foot-1-inch Robinson signed up.

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He’s about 40 pounds into his goal of dropping 100. His truck’s refrigerator is stocked with chicken, tuna, and vegetables. And after his day’s drive, he walks — on trails near rest stops or just circling his truck.

‘‘I have asthma, so with the extra weight on there, it isn’t good for me,’’ said Robinson, a 30-year-old from Philadelphia. ‘‘When I started losing weight, instantly I was breathing better. I was sleeping better at night.’’

From trucking companies embracing wellness and weight-loss programs to gyms being installed at truck stops, momentum has picked up in recent years to help those who make their living driving big rigs get into shape.

‘‘I think a lot of trucking companies are coming around to the idea that their drivers are their assets,’’ said Boyd Stephenson of the American Truck­ing Associations, the industry’s largest national trade association. He added that healthier employees help a company’s bottom line.

There’s an additional incentive for truckers to stay in shape — their job might depend on their health. Every two years, they must pass a physical exam required by the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. They are checked for conditions that might cause them to become incapacitated — suddenly or gradually — while driving, including severe heart conditions, high blood pressure, and respiratory disorders.

While there are no weight restrictions, a commercial driver who has been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea and is not undergoing treatment will not get a medical certificate. Sleep apnea, more common among those who are overweight, leads to daytime sleepiness, a danger on long drives.

But there are obstacles for truck drivers who are mindful of their health. In addition to being seated for many hours at a time, eating options are usually limited to places with parking lots big enough to accommodate their tractor-trailers — most often truck stops, which historically have not been known for wholesome food or workout equipment. That’s something truck stop chains have been trying to change.

TravelCenters of America, which operates under the TA and Petro Stopping Centers brands, launched a program two years ago called StayFit that includes placing small, free gyms in truck stops, offering healthier eating options and half portions, mapping walking routes near truck stops, and building basketball courts in some locations.

‘‘We wanted to remove as many barriers to drivers’ health as possible,’’ said TravelCenters spokesman Tom Liutkus, who said the company has gyms at 42 of its more than 240 locations, with plans to outfit them all by the end of next year. He added that the gyms have been accessed more than 30,000 times.

Gym franchiser Snap Fitness has partnered with Rolling Strong, which provides wellness programs aimed at truckers, to open gyms at Pilot Flying J locations. The first one opened south of Dallas in June: A nearly 1,000-square-foot stand-alone building filled with weights and a dozen machines. More than 120 memberships have been sold for that gym.

‘‘We know that we have an audience out there that needs help,’’ said Snap Fitness chief executive officer and founder Peter Taunton. By the end of the year, the company plans to install gyms inside Pilot Flying J truck stops in Georgia and Tennessee.

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