For staff

Dr Sarah Morton tackles sedentary behaviours

One of the many impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a substantial shift in how people with desk-based roles do their jobs.

Working from home


Many people have adopted a hybrid or even entirely ‘work from home’ (WfH) pattern, and with many companies downsizing their premises to accommodate this shift the change appears to be for the long term. Dr Sarah Morton, Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Physical Activity for Health Research Centre (PAHRC) is part of a group of researchers, led by Professor Ailsa Niven, who are exploring the new opportunities and challenges that the home-working environment presents.

Are you working (too) comfortably?

The new WfH pattern offers workers more flexibility, reduced transport costs, and allows for a greater work/life balance. However, the research team observed that the arrangement also increases sedentary behaviours (SB) which in turn increases the risk of significant physical and mental health issues in both the short and longer term. Professor Niven led an MRC Public Health Intervention Development-funded study to understand the issue and co-design solutions, and Co-investigator Dr Morton was keen to take their findings forward.  

Finding solutions for home workers

Progressing the MRC research alongside Professor Niven, Dr Claire Fitzsimons, Dr Eva Coral Alemida and Dr Divya Sivarmakrishnan, Dr Morton wanted to mitigate the negative physical and mental impact of prolonged SB. The team identified a need to support people WfH by using existing technology in a non-invasive way that people could engage with when they had time. She sought support from Edinburgh Innovations’ iTPA team by applying for the £5K Springboard Fund and was successful. Besides funding, the iTPA team also provided Sarah and team with mentorship in the form of entrepreneurship training and business model development; competition mapping and analysis support; and facilitation with industry engagement opportunities.

Dr Morton planned to investigate digital health interventions that reduced SB in big organisations in the form of an app or prompt that could then be scaled. The iTPA’s Springboard Fund, which is designed to fund the development of early-stage ideas, enabled Dr Morton and team to develop a prototype desktop app for MS Teams that prompts users to take a movement break, including links to videos with guided movement such as stretching and micro-breaks.

The MS Teams app was launched as a pilot within the University of Edinburgh, with ~100 University staff participating over a four-week period. Participants reported that they increased their movement during this time, with most feeling the benefit of responding to the prompts. Some participants even reported making wider lifestyle decisions in response to their involvement with the pilot, such as healthier food choices and engaging in movement during non-working hours.

The success of the pilot allowed the team to target SB on a wider scale. The team secured ESRC IAA funding of £20K, which was matched by the Scottish Government. Taking a collaborative approach, the Move Your Way toolkit was tested with Scottish Government employees, who reported finding the movement suggestions useful and easily integrated into their working day.

Following this, Dr Morton was awarded £20K from the Welcome Trust iTPA Accelerator Fund, which allowed her to explore the market potential for scaling up the concept and developing the toolkit and Teams prompt further. She focused on understanding how artificial intelligence could be utilised to provide bespoke suggestions for reducing SB while WfH that align with individual lifestyles, home working environments, and working patterns. With funding and support from the iTPA team, Dr Morton is now developing a smartphone app.

Reflecting on her engagement with iTPA, Dr Morton says:

Prior to gaining iTPA funding, I always felt I was on the outside looking in, full of ideas but not knowing where to start. Since starting the iTPA project and receiving funding and mentorship this has all changed. Now I’m keen to further embed myself within the translational community and explore my own ‘spinout ’ options.


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