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Driving a change in activity levels among truckers

A targeted health programme has been shown by NIHR-funded researchers to increase short-term activity levels among heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, paving the way to improve their health and wellbeing.

Published: 06 July 2023

HGV drivers at high risk of multiple health complications

The nation relies on its 300,000 heavy goods vehicle drivers to support its food, retail and industry supply chains, but the nature of their job puts them at high risk of many health complications. 

Variable working hours and long periods of sitting, alongside tight schedules and poor diet, all contribute towards an increased risk of chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Despite these risks, and the lower life expectancy associated with them, HGV drivers receive little guidance or support to improve their health. 

Stacy Clemes is a Professor of Active Living and Public Health at Loughborough University, where her research focuses on increasing physical activity in the workplace. She said: “Helping drivers to make lifestyle changes will not only improve their health but also has the potential to improve road safety, reduce sickness absence and reduce the costs to the NHS.”

To counter the lack of high-quality health behaviour interventions for HGV drivers, Professor Clemes and her team were awarded £820,000 by the NIHR Public Health Research Programme to investigate whether a targeted health programme could increase their activity levels. 

Known as the Structured Health Intervention for Truckers (SHIFT) study, the SHIFT programme was specially designed for HGV drivers whose lifestyle is constrained by their time spent driving each day. It delivers an interactive educational session supporting drivers to change their activity, sitting and dietary behaviours, along with the provision of physical activity trackers and tips to keep active in the cab (when not driving). 

“Our randomised controlled trial hoped to demonstrate that the SHIFT programme could effectively tackle health inequalities in the transport sector and have a long-term beneficial impact on professional drivers’ health and wellbeing,” said Professor Clemes. 

Health gains from increased activity with SHIFT

With support from the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre (a partnership between University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, Loughborough University and the University of Leicester), the SHIFT trial team worked with a major logistics company to recruit over 380 HGV drivers from 25 transport sites in the Midlands. 

Drivers at 12 sites were randomly assigned to receive the SHIFT programme while the remaining 13 sites continued with their normal practice and acted as a control group. All drivers received health assessments to measure markers such as blood pressure, sleep, weight, sitting time and physical activity levels. 

Published in the journal BMC Medicine, the results showed that after 6 months, the SHIFT group drivers walked around 1,000 more steps each day and spent less time sitting than the control group. This increased activity is equivalent to 10 minutes of walking, which could have a positive impact on drivers’ longer-term health. 

Despite these improvements, their activity levels had dropped again by the 18-month health assessment, which also coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and its unexpected effects on people’s behaviour and activity. The researchers’ economic analysis also found that the programme was not likely to be cost-effective in its current delivery format. 

In a further analysis of their results (published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health), the team noted that drivers with obesity benefited the most, with improvements in their physical activity, body weight and time spent sitting compared with controls. The promising results suggested that the drivers most at risk of health complications were receptive to the programme and open to behaviour changes. 

Translating research into policy

Although the longer-term benefits of the SHIFT programme are unclear, the team is confident that this key workforce’s health could be improved by wider promotion of the intervention. One way to achieve this is by incorporating it into HGV drivers’ mandatory Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) training. 

The study’s HGV drivers and managers were enthusiastic about the SHIFT approach and supported its use in drivers’ CPC training (published in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity). 

Professor Clemes said: “We are now working with HGV drivers and industry stakeholders, including training providers and regulators, to translate our SHIFT programme into a driver training module that we hope will be accessible to all UK HGV drivers.” The training module’s development is supported by a 2-year funding award from The Colt Foundation.

“We hope that this work, initiated by the NIHR-funded SHIFT study, 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.”

Professor Clemes, Professor of Active Living and Public Health at Loughborough University.

As part of the module’s development, the team is working with two major logistics operators to embed a shortened version of SHIFT into their mandatory CPC module. The module will be rolled out from September 2023, giving around 14,000 HGV drivers access to the benefits of the SHIFT programme. 

The team also plan to expand the SHIFT programme by incorporating elements focusing on sleep. For example, members of the team are carrying out a Medical Research Council-funded study to develop an app-based intervention to improve sleep quality and quantity in HGV drivers.

The study was funded by the NIHR Public Health Research Programme.

More information about the study is available on the NIHR’s Funding & Awards website.

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