By Charlie Morasch, contributing writer
Phil Staples was finishing a meal at the Flying J restaurant in Winslow, Ariz., when he heard the latest scuttlebutt.
As drivers made their way through the buffet and glasses clanked onto tables, a middle-aged Australian man with a camera crew had become the talk of the truck stop on Interstate 40 that November 2007 day.
Staples paid his bill, left the restaurant and headed to his truck. As he began leaving the parking lot, that well-known Aussie and his cameraman stopped Phil and asked him if he would agree to an on-camera interview.
“I tried to sneak by him, but he caught me,” Phil told Land Line. “I said, ‘Why not? I can tell your camera guy is already rolling.’”
The conversation proved to be life-changing for both men.
Phil took the documentary maker’s questions about his health to heart – leading him to eventually lose nearly 100 pounds and change careers to become a personal trainer.
The filmmaker, Australian entrepreneur Joe Cross, changed his original plans for the movie and adapted it to also follow Phil’s dramatic health and lifestyle changes. The film’s primary focus had been on Cross himself. Weighing more than 300 pounds at the film’s beginning, the documentary shows Cross losing weight by drinking juices extracted from vegetables as he crisscrossed the United States to discuss health and weight with Americans.
The documentary that emerged – “Fat, sick and nearly dead,” has won awards at film festivals around the U.S. including the Sonoma International Film Festival, the Landlocked Film Festival and the Iowa Independent Film Festival. The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Confronted with the facts of his obesity, Phil says he was brought to a crossroads. A few months after that on-camera conversation with Cross, Phil called the filmmaker up and asked him for help.
“I was scared to be found dead out in that truck,” Phil says.
After serving in the military after high school, Phil began a 20-year career in trucking working mostly as a company driver.
Phil remembers the “hammer down” nature of trucking’s culture at the time, before DOT rules limited driving time.
“It was old school,” Phil said. “You get it there as fast as you could get it there. It was go quick and grab something to eat on the way so you can take off. And I got used to that. Once the DOT rule came into play, I was already used to that life and I was pretty heavy.”
Phil said his unhealthy weight problems can be blamed partially on the difficulty it takes for truck drivers to live healthy lives. Delays and waiting at docks, the need to eat quickly, and a lack of healthy options available at truck stop restaurants took their toll, he says.
“Really, it was mostly my fault,” Phil said. “I know I could have started taking better care of myself. But at the time, I had 10 or 15 years of unhealthy habits.”
The reality for many truck drivers, Phil says, is that the job seems to trap them. Long, sometimes stressful hours push them physically and mentally. Breaks are often taken at restaurants and buffets where value is equated with large quantities of often unhealthy food choices.
In his own case, ignoring the weight problem only made his obesity worse, Phil said.
“A lot of them drive hard, and there are companies out there that don’t follow DOT hours-of-service rules,” Phil said. “They don’t have the time or energy to get out and exercise, and there is convenience having fast food right there at truck stops. They have a lot of things going against them.”
Living healthy is still possible, even during a hectic and unpredictable truck driver’s schedule, Phil says. With Cross’s help, Phil changed his diet to make it largely plant-based. He began exercising and lost nearly 100 pounds within six months, though much of the weight loss occurred while he took time off from trucking and toured with Cross.
Not long before he left the road to focus on his career as a trainer, Phil began strapping his bicycle onto the back of his cab. Bicycles and coolers full of healthy foods and drinks are both highly portable, and can make a world of difference when it comes to a driver’s health, he says.
Last year, Phil traveled to New York for the movie’s premiere at a film festival where it won several awards including best new picture and best documentary.
“It was packed,” Phil said. “People loved it. Joe said it was the same way at all the festivals.”
In addition to independent film buffs, Phil’s friends also have taken notice of his changes.
Jason Stowell has known Phil for 22 years.
Stowell, an owner-operator leased to a nine-truck company based in Minnesota, was inspired by Phil’s weight loss enough to start changing his own life.
Six months ago, Stowell says he began exchanging his go-to burgers and fries for salads. Stowell also grills chicken breasts outside his truck and stopped drinking Mountain Dew by switching to water and iced tea.
By taking a little time to plan meals ahead of time, Stowell said his diet has allowed him to drop about 60 pounds since last winter, leaving the thickly built former high school athlete at 202 pounds.
“I didn’t want to end up at 300 pounds,” Stowell said. “I didn’t want to hit that plateau ever. I’m 44 years old, so losing the weight wasn’t easy for me. I love my French fries and Big Macs, but I tell you – it’s a habit now. I go into a Subway now and I’ll order the chicken teriyaki salad. That’s just what I do. Life is easier that way.”
Phil hopes his new lifestyle will help others beyond his immediate family and friends.
In April, Phil earned his certificate to become a licensed health coach from the Institute of Integrated Nutrition. His business, Crossroads Health Coaching, specializes in giving clients one-on-one diet and exercise programs.
He hopes to use his newfound knowledge to work with trucking companies and truck stops.
“A healthier truck driving nation will really lower costs for everyone medically,” Phil says. “And healthier truckers will have less problems and have more energy to work and to live.”