Nutrition seems to be in focus at the moment. One group who are particularly over exposed to poor eating choices are the truck drivers we depend upon to keep the nation moving. Thanks to Dr Nicholas Gilson for providing this overview of a new study taking an occupational health approach to tackling health risks to Queenslands truck drivers.

We’ve all been there – long road journey, hours of sitting, stop to refuel (both the car and the cravings), then back on the road for more hours of driving to get to a meeting, make a flight or reach a holiday destination.

The road and tight deadlines are the day-to-day reality for truck drivers who ply the interstate highways and metropolitan byways of Australia, delivering payloads that keep our economy ticking over. The trucking industry and the health of its drivers play a vital role in the prosperity of the Nation. The industry carries three quarters of Australia’s domestic freight and employs over a quarter of a million people. Estimates are that the industry will continue to grow over the next 20 years.

Here’s the clincher though – predicted growth is firmly set against the context of an older, male dominated driver workforce with a high incidence of chronic conditions and health-related risk factors. It’s hard to avoid the stereotype, but heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and stress, are commonplace in drivers.

Habitual and occupational inactivity, prolonged sitting and poor diet are at the heart of this smorgasbord of ill health. Consequently, we urgently need to get to grips with driver apathy towards active living and healthy diets. No doubt inflexible work conditions, time pressures and socio-cultural norms define the sitting ‘smoko’ and the servo counter (resplendent with high fat convenience food and high sugar or full fat drink combos), as the easier behavioural option – but at the depot, out on the road, outside of work, or anywhere else, drivers do have choices and thereby opportunities to be healthier (see the picture below as an example).

This picture was taken at a servo used by drivers on the Bruce Highway in Queensland as I tagged along with a line haul driver on night shift. Note the healthier option (and the price difference). Which would you choose? My health and safety induction earlier in the night covered fire exits and fluorescent vests, but not the lurking danger of value combos!

Tapping into the idea of promoting healthy choices in drivers, my team at The University of Queensland are about to begin a novel initiative to test the feasibility of a new lifestyle intervention we have termed Shifting Gears. The study, funded by the Queensland Government, aims to develop, implement and evaluate a program which targets small changes in active living (sitting less and moving more) and healthy diets (fruit, veg and reduced fat, low sugar drinks) in driver breaks.

This occupational (as opposed to general lifestyle) approach is not only practical, given the inherent time barriers drivers face while working, but also effective at combating energy imbalance, which is so fundamentally linked to chronic disease.

Shifting Gears will involve two groups of around 30 drivers, at separate depots in Queensland (one line haul and one metropolitan delivery).  Our first task will be to use participatory approaches to engage drivers in digitally mapping active living and healthy eating/drinking opportunities, during driver breaks, using mobile phones.

This is an ideal starting point because it will not only identify where healthy opportunities exist, but will also encourage stakeholders (the drivers, their companies and us) to work collaboratively towards developing a intervention action plan that we can all sign up to.

Importantly, we will ‘drive’ up-take of our action plan through goal setting and organisational incentives, whereby drivers will be rewarded relative to the number of healthy choices (or Gear Shifts) they make. Gear Shifts might include a ten minute walk during morning delivery break or choosing vegetable servings rather than fried food at an evening meal truck stop; incentives might be financial (e.g. monthly shopping voucher), or more intrinsically orientated rewards such as a funded activity excursion (e.g. entry fee for a local touch football competition).

The types of small changes and incentives used will emerge out of our participatory approaches, and through this process we hope to evolve an intervention that will ‘stick’ and become part of drivers’ everyday routine.

Our analyses and write up will reflect on lessons learnt and future best practice approaches for wider dissemination. We will consult with our partners, and overarching industry bodies in Australia, such as the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, to contextualise our findings and recommendations against established industry priorities, such as driver fatigue (which is associated with stress and being overweight or obesity).

One of our longer term objectives will be to use findings to support the case for a much larger initiative. Imagine if you will a federal network of active living and healthy diet stops, supported by company incentive schemes, which drivers could access within metropolitan districts and line haul routes across the country.

Dr Nicholas Gilson is Chief Investigator for the Shifting Gears Project and a Senior Lecturer in Physical Activity and Health in the School of Human Movement Studies, at the University of Queensland, Australia. 

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