Frontline Initiative: Health and Wellness

DSPs are Health Promoters: The HealthMatters™ Program


Jasmina Sisirak is Co-Director at HealthMatters™ Program at the Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois Chicago. She can be reached at

Beth Marks is Co-Director at HealthMatters™ Program. She can be reached at

Direct support professionals (DSPs) play a major role in promoting and supporting healthy habits for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). HealthMatters™ Program is a community-based, tested, ready-to-implement, DSP-led health promotion program. It is developed specifically for people with IDD as an effective way of supporting a healthy lifestyle.

Virtual Coach: HealthMatters Program

HealthMatters™ Program is an evidence-based*, field-tested health promotion program that provides DSPs with training, strategies, and materials to support healthy options and choices among people with IDD. It is a 12-week program for people with IDD that consists of staff training, a paper curriculum, and a virtual classroom. HealthMatters™ Program has been developed and is housed at the Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois Chicago. Since 2002, our team has been partnering with community-based organizations to bring health promotion programming to the places where people with IDD live, work, play, and worship. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we added a virtual component to our program – Virtual Coach: HealthMatters™ Program.

HealthMatters™ Program is an evidence-based, field-tested health promotion program that provides DSPs with training, strategies, and materials to support healthy options and choices among people with IDD.

This is Figure 1. It defines the HealthMatters™ Program and lists the program components.

Figure 1. HealthMatters™ Program components.

Participating in a 12-week program benefited participants with IDD and staff leaders. After completing the program, participants with IDD had improved knowledge and attitudes towards exercise, including positive personal beliefs, higher exercise confidence, fewer emotional barriers to exercise, improved life satisfaction, heart fitness, and greater muscular strength and endurance. [1, 2, 3] Staff leading the 12-week program also showed improvements in social and environmental supports for nutrition, exercise and nutrition personal beliefs, and increased knowledge and intake of fruit and vegetables. [4 ]

Our team has worked with many partners, including community-based organizations such as schools, recreational centers, and organizations that provide day and residential services to people with IDD. HealthMatters™ Program has been implemented in Project SEARCH school-to-work transition sites, Managed Care Organizations, state and local departments of health, Area Agencies on Aging (AAA), and state Special Olympics. We have reached over 12,000 people with IDD and over 3,100 support staff across 35 states and 8 countries. See Figure 2 for our reach since November 2020 when we launched Virtual Coach: HealthMatters Program.

This is Figure 2. It shows the reach of HealthMatters™ Program.

Figure 2. HealthMatters™ Program reach.

Thanks to our Healthy Brain Initiative Award^ from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Center for Chronic Disease, we offer continuous training and support through September 2025. Organizations can join by filling out a quick application and the program training is offered every February and September.

When looking to implement a health promotion program in your organization, here are some tips to get you started:

1. Find a health promotion program that has been tested and developed for people with IDD.

  • Get buy-in from management, other colleagues, caregivers, and individuals with IDD.

2. Set goals and develop a plan! Think about short, intermediate, and long-term goals for health promotion. Use SMART goals with your plan.

  • Specific. Set a specific and narrow goal. (Example: “By September 1, 2023, we will start the first 12-week HealthMatters™ Program with 8 participants with IDD, led by 4 DSPs in 2 community homes.”)
  • Measurable. How will you show that the program is making a difference? Plan to evaluate your program. Remember, you can reevaluate when needed. (Example: "By September 1, 2023, 8 participants with IDD will have improved their physical activity and nutrition education, and their balance.”)
  • Achievable. Ask yourself if you can reasonably accomplish the goal within the set timeframe. Why or why not? Do you need to adjust to meet it?
  • Relevant. The goal should align with participants' IDD treatment plans, and organizational long-term objectives, mission, and vision. When setting a goal, it is important to involve people with IDD, leadership, other caregivers, and health care providers.
  • Time-based. Set a timeframe for your goal. Answer “when” questions.

3. Lastly, celebrate successes (even small ones) and reflect on challenges. You will learn how to improve the program next time!


Virtual Coach: HealthMatters™

HealthMessages™ Program

HealthMatters™ Program YouTube Channel

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