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Culture change leads to healthier truckers

Halvor Lines driver Crash Carlson works out in a company workout room at the trucking company's terminal in Superior, Wis. (Clint Austin/Duluth1 / 3
Becca Mathews of Duluth, Minn., the health and wellness coordinator at Halvor Lines in Superior, Wis., encourages truck drivers to measure portions and to have healthy foods in their trucks as an alternative to fast food and junk food options that are common at truck stops. (Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune)2 / 3
Halvor Lines driver Crash Carlson demonstrates how he uses a resistance band for exercise when he is in his truck away from a gym. (Clint3 / 3

DULUTH -- Jerald "Crash" Carlson is pretty flexible when it comes to fixing his daily shake.

"I throw everything in the glass that's imaginable," the 74-year-old Proctor resident said. "Spinach. Broccoli. Strawberries. Flax seed. I put peaches in there that are left over from the night before ... peaches and the peach juice. ... Half a dozen carrots."

On this particular day, the resulting concoction had a slightly green tinge. On other days the coloring may be orange or yellow. But one thing never changes.

The drinks are always healthy and filled with protein.

For Carlson, this is a substantial change in diet within the past year.

Carlson, who drives a tractor-trailer 350 to 500 miles, seven days a week for Superior, Wis.-based Halvor Lines has lost 85 pounds this year, and has seen his blood pressure decrease substantially.

It's a story Carlson, whose "Crash" nickname comes from his long association with auto racing and not his driving record, shares with many of his colleagues at Halvor, which has a staff of 375 to 380 people including between 280 and 290 drivers, according to human resources director Adam Lang.

"The culture is definitely changing at Halvor Lines," said Jon Vinje, company president and CEO.

Employees have lost a combined 1,240 pounds so far this year, exceeding their goal of losing 1,000. A health and wellness director who began coming there part time in January was elevated to full-time status last month. Even banter among the company's truckers seems to have changed.

"We can stand here and listen to them talk back there in the driver's lounge, and they're talking about: 'Man, I've got this recipe for this and you oughta try this,' " said Keith Terska, driver services coordinator and trainer. "And it's like: Whoa, these are truck drivers."

Blood pressure study

Halvor's interest in health includes participation in a study with the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy's Duluth campus and Essentia Health on blood pressure and truckers.

It's a huge issue, said Terska, an over-the-road trucker himself for years before joining the office staff three years ago. High blood pressure can lead to heart attacks and stroke, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. And under federal regulations, Terska explained, drivers who can't keep their blood pressure reading below 140/90 can lose their commercial driver's license.

The consequences of high blood pressure for a trucker hauling a 53-foot trailer weighing up to 80,000 pounds on 70 mph highways can be deadly.

"High blood pressure leads to strokes, and I've known a couple of drivers that have had strokes out on the road," Terska said. "One that I know of that lives in California, he had a stroke and crashed into a bridge. You say luckily it was a bridge and not a bus, but it shouldn't happen at all, and it was all because of health and wellness, not monitoring blood pressure and things like that."

The study, which began in January and will conclude in July, is being led by Keri Hager of the College of Pharmacy. Its purpose: to learn what effect being able to consult with a pharmacist about medications could have on reducing blood pressure.

Other studies had shown a significant positive effect, said Hager, an associate professor at the school. But there hadn't been a study specifically involving truckers.

It's already known that the primary question won't be answered. To obtain a statistically meaningful result, Hager needed 60 drivers already diagnosed with hypertension, half with access to the pharmacists and half without. But after six months of recruiting, only 11 drivers had come aboard.

Difficulty connecting

Nonetheless, Hager considers the study a success, if only because it has shown how difficult it is to connect truckers with health professionals. The six truckers enrolled in what's known as Medication Therapy Management could see the pharmacists at Essentia or via a secure video link from a conference room in Halvor's Superior headquarters. The idea, Hager said, is the drivers could consult privately with the pharmacists at the place where they stop between runs anyway.

But the idea didn't take into account the frenetic lifestyles of truck drivers.

"It's just a little harder to accommodate them," said Krista Huot, one of the two Essentia Health pharmacists participating in the study. "I say, 'Can you meet me in an hour?' And in an hour they're already back on the road."

But Hager and the Halvor crew are looking at ways technology could solve the problem. The electronic logs that drivers already have in their trucks could perhaps be modified to provide a secure link between the driver and pharmacist, Lang said.

They can't simply talk via cell phone, explained Mike Swanoski, the other Essentia pharmacist in the study.

"Right now if we were to have a cell phone conversation, well maybe the NSA would listen in," he joked.

199 pounds

Carlson is in the study, but he's not part of the group that's consulting with the pharmacists. Even so, his health is improving. On Jan. 12, his blood pressure reading was 136/72. On a recent October morning, it was 102/69, and he has had systolic readings (the first number) in the 90s. His goal for years had been to get down to 200 pounds. On Jan. 1, he weighed 285. On a recent October Sunday morning, he hit 199.

He reports being able to lean down to pick up dropped items, and he's able to bend straight over to tie his shoes instead of turning to the side to tie them.

A couple of times a week, he and his wife go dancing.

"I cannot remember ever feeling this good," Carlson said.

He credits Becca Mathews, Halvor's health and wellness coordinator.

"The Becca thing fell right into my hands," he said. "And it was kind of fun working with her because she pays attention to you."

Mathews, who has a degree in exercise science and applied health from the University of Montana, first came into contact with Halvor two years ago when she was invited to run an in-house weight-loss competition. Vinje, the CEO, was the winner, losing 45 pounds. At the beginning of this year, she started working two days a week at Halvor while continuing her work at PhyEd Health Club in Superior the rest of the week. She started her full-time responsibilities at Halvor in early October.

The key, Mathews said, is availability.

"Having access to me is the first thing," she said. "Now that I'm here full time, the amount of drivers that I see is ridiculous."

Learning to shop

She started in January with a pilot group of 12 drivers, advising them on exercises -- walking around a tractor-trailer 31 times is a mile -- eating smaller meals, what to eat and how to shop. She went to the grocery store with a couple of the drivers, Mathews said.

"It helps them to be accountable and it helps them want to go on," she said.

And perhaps guilt also plays a role.

"Actually, when I cheated (on his diet) I felt like I was having an extramarital affair because I had to face Becca," Carlson said.

His diet, which includes items like rice cakes and oatmeal with peanut butter, has changed entirely within the past year. He can tell you how many milligrams of salt were in the fast-food meals he used to eat. He had a particular affinity for the hot dogs served in convenience stores.

"I ate eight to 12 hot dogs a day," Carlson said. "Not the buns; because I was on a diet."

Now he tracks "every morsel" of food he eats in one journal and his blood pressure readings in another. He goes to the gym to work out three nights a week, between midnight and 1 a.m.

Losing 69 pounds

Like Carlson, Terska has been a big weight loser this year. It started for him in February, when he had a kidney removed. He was in the hospital for 18 days, he said, and was losing weight anyway.

"So I thought: There's no time like the present," Terska related. "So I've lost 69 pounds and got off all my blood pressure medicine. So it's a good testimonial to the drivers. It works."

Halvor has established a culture that makes it easier for the drivers, Terska said. The building set aside primarily for the drivers includes an exercise room. New trucks in the fleet are equipped with a refrigerator-freezer and an inverter for a microwave so drivers can make their own meals. The company has a corporate membership at the PhyEd Health Club for the benefit of its employees.

It's a change in thinking for the company, said Vinje, whose father founded it 45 years ago.

"Really, health and wellness wasn't something that we taught here," Vinje said. "We focused on having well-maintained equipment and delivering freight."

But his father, who started as a driver, died of a heart attack at age 60, Vinje said.

The average age of Halvor's truckers today is 52. He has seen the benefit of focusing on health and wellness for himself, he said, and he wants his employees to have the same opportunity.

It's working, Terska said. Drivers who used to talk about which truck stop had the best one-pound steak now are exchanging recipes for healthy meals.

"They're always coming in here checking their weight," he said. "It's just amazing. It went a lot farther than I thought it would go."