New research suggests health education, Fitbits and cabin workouts can improve activity levels of lorry drivers

A targeted health programme, including health education sessions, Fitbits, and lorry cabin workouts, can improve the activity levels of long-distance heavy goods drivers in the short-term, according to new research from the National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR) and Leicester Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) – a partnership between Leicester’s Hospitals, the University of Leicester and Loughborough University – in collaboration with the University of York.

There are approximately 300,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers in the UK, but recently the industry has faced challenges with driver shortages and attracting new drivers. It is well established that HGV drivers are exposed to a number of health-related risk factors, such as shift work and long periods of sedentary behaviour (sitting), which contribute towards chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. However, it’s now hoped that a new study titled ‘Structured Health Intervention For Truckers’ (SHIFT) will lead to a policy-level change in driver training provision, and, in turn, lead to longer-term improvements in drivers’ health and road safety.

The SHIFT study, published today (Tuesday) in BMC Medicine, recruited 382 long-distance HGV drivers from 25 transport sites in the Midlands. Researchers investigated whether investigated whether their health behaviours could be improved using the specially designed SHIFT programme.

From January 2018, drivers were either assigned to a six-month SHIFT programme (183 participants) or to a ‘control arm’ (199 participants). Control arm drivers received no intervention, which meant that changes directly resulting from programme could not be observed. 

Participants in the SHIFT arm of the trial received a six-hour education and health-behaviour change session, had access to a health coach for support, and were provided with a Fitbit to monitor activity levels and set goals. They were also introduced to a workout that they could follow in their lorry cabin and provided with resistance bands and balls. Participants were encouraged to maintain the health programme for six months.

Participants in both arms of the trial were followed up six months and between 16 and 18 months later. The researchers found:

  • After six months, participants in the SHIFT programme walked on average an additional 1,000 steps per day than the control group (equivalent to approximately 10 minutes of brisk walking). 
  • They also spent less time sitting per day than the control group (around 24 minutes less) and accumulated about six more minutes a day of moderate to vigorous activities.
  • However, the differences they did observe at six months were not sustained after sixteen to eighteen months, which coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The authors conclude that, although the longer-term benefits of the SHIFT programme are unclear, it should be incorporated into HGV driver training courses to promote activity and help improve the health of this key workforce. 

Thomas Yates, Professor of Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Health at the University of Leicester, was a lead author on the paper. He explained: “Even small changes in walking, as little as five minutes a day, have a meaningful impact on the risk of developing a long-term chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes, so the changes observed in this study were hugely important and likely to meaningful improve the longer-term health of the lorry drivers involved.”

Dr Stacy Clemes from Loughborough University added: “While HGV drivers undertake compulsory Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) training, this does not cover in detail lifestyle health behaviours.

“The SHIFT programme has the potential to fill this void, and to make an impact on drivers’ activity, which in turn could have positive health benefits for all drivers.

“We now hope to work with HGV drivers, industry stakeholders, including training providers and regulators, to translate our ‘SHIFT’ programme into a mandatory driver training module that will be accessible to UK HGV drivers.

“We hope that this work could lead to a policy-level change in driver training provision, and in-turn lead to longer-term improvements in drivers’ health and road safety.

“Over time we also hope to expand the SHIFT programme, and our portfolio of health resources for drivers, by also incorporating elements focusing on sleep and diet, through further ongoing work in these areas.”

The effectiveness of the Structured Health Intervention For Truckers (SHIFT): a cluster randomised controlled trial (RCT)’ is published in BMC Medicine.