Healthy lifestyles training sets out to improve the health of young adults with disabiltiies

May 19, 2011

People with developmental disabilities often experience more health problems than people without disabilities. This is a fact that has been documented, but one family in Tropic, Utah, took it to heart—literally.

Brothers Dawson and Payton Johnson went to a doctor’s appointment together. Payton, who has Downs Syndrome, heard the doctor’s concerns about Payton’s heart, and so did Dawson.

After they left the office, Dawson began spinning a plan that would end up touching students in two schools and training young adults with disabilities in his town in Southern Utah.  It also linked up with the Healthy Lifestyles project here at the Center for Persons with Disabilities.

Dawson, a student athlete, wanted to train his fellow students about healthy lifestyles. He teamed up with Payton and another brother, Jacob, and they brought in some other student athletes, too. They contacted Jeff Sheen at the CPD for training materials about healthy lifestyles. Over the spring they prepared presentations and took them to Bryce Canyon elementary and high schools. They encouraged their listeners to set a goal that would improve their health, and when the students reported their goals back to the training staff, they got a wristband.

The presenters also taught classes tailored specifically for young adults with developmental disabilities, targeting six high school students. The program encouraged participants to set small, realistic goals to improve their health. They could drink water instead of soda, for example, or work more walking into the day.

It followed the model that the CPD’s  Healthy Lifestyles project embraces: a curriculum geared specifically for young adults with disabilities, a goal-oriented approach. The activities in Tropic happened because of the trainers’ determination, who took the Healthy Lifestyles curriculum and made it work for the audience they presented to.

The trainers ended up presenting their work to the Family Career and Community Leaders of America competition in Utah, where they earned a silver medal.

The project’s success was boosted by the presenters, who included some cool student athletes and a person with a developmental disability, said Tracy Johnson, the mother of the boys who started it all. “It was really a fun project for all of them,” she said. The six developmentally disabled students received water bottles, and they were excited to use them. “They high-five the trainers and want to tell them what they’re doing to stay healthy.”

It’s the kind of response Sheen and others have observed from people who received the Healthy Lifestyles training in other parts of the state. “I’ll see people we trained in different places, and they will have their water bottle with them, and this will be months, a year later,” Sheen said. One young man who received the training lost 70 pounds. While he did a lot more than attend the training, the classes did reinforce the things he was doing to improve his health.

Sheen and Burgess have aimed their training at group homes and post-secondary programs. After preaching healthy lifestyles for two years, Sheen said they have both enjoyed better health.

“We’ve both made the same small changes as we’ve asked everyone else to do,” he said. “Two years in, I’m much healthier because I’ve followed through.”

A young man dishes up salsa in a busy kitchen.
Healthy living means more than diet and exercise. It includes social interaction and meaningful activities.

Anybody who has tried to change their lifestyle knows the best results come to people who are serious about making changes. Some individuals responded with more enthusiasm than others. And while eating right and exercise are often talked about as ways to improve health, Sheen said the training focused on a lot more.

Social and emotional health, engaging in meaningful activities and preventing health problems are part of the training, too. Often, a participant’s healthy goal would overlap more than one area. For example, if a young woman wanted to walk her dog more, it did more than bolster physical health. It would also serve as a social boost, since she would interact with her dog and the people she passed on the street. If a young man wanted to play a sport, it might introduce him to social team play.

“It was a really good experience,” said Kelie Babcock, the coordinator at Tri-County Independent Living Center in Ogden. “My groups that come are young adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities, and they come here to tri-county to learn life skills.” The training was a good fit, since it was structured for people with developmental disabilities. She was impressed with how much of the training they remembered, and she saw results. Habits changed. She saw people drinking more water, less soda.

The trainers left it up to the day programs whether they wanted to follow up with cooking classes, though they did find an excellent resource—a cookbook—for those who did. The CPD’s PEER project reinforced the healthy lifestyles training with some cooking classes.

“I learned a lot of stuff here,” said Isaac Gorostieta. “Don’t eat too much oil and don’t eat too much meat. … I like showing my parents that I like cooking healthy stuff.”

Isaac and classmate Carson Geiger show off their skills in a video on the CPD's YouTube Channel. If you’re hungry, you may want to eat before you watch—it looks really good.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website has a page on improving the health of people with developmental disabilities:

The Let's Cook: Healthy Meals for Independent Living cookbook received high marks from professionals who participated in the Healthy Lifestyles training project.

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