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How Digital Health Interventions Can Reduce Sedentary Behavior in Office Workers


A new review provides a roadmap for health-tech innovators who are focused on white-collar wellness.

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Physical inactivity is a pressing public health issue. Contributing to this crisis are the extended hours of sedentary behavior of office workers. Digital technology interventions are a possible solution, but researchers and developers are often unclear as to which avenues have already been explored.

As part of a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers examined 68 articles that addressed efforts to help reduce sedentary behavior in office workers. Researchers found 45 disparate interventions and identified six technological features that were most commonly used, shining a light on where the research must focus from here.

Lead researcher Yitong Huang, M.S., says the ultimate goal was to provide an “overview of the technological landscape, in terms of what has been designed, tested, what has been scaled up and what has not but has shown promise, and is hence worth more investment to move it downstream to further evaluation and development.”

Researchers used the United Kingdom Medical Research Council (MRC) framework for developing and evaluating complex interventions to group the studies. Categories included: development, feasibility and/piloting, evaluation or implementation.

Says Huang: “In my view, with screenless digital media, wireless communication technologies and data fusion, future digital interventions will be better embedded in the physical environment and can adapt to the user’s real-time status and needs, which affords really exciting opportunities for scalable delivery of BCTs (behavior change techniques) like ‘problem-solving’ and ‘changing the social or physical environment.’”

The increasing availability of digital technology means it’s easier to try these methods. For instance, unobtrusive devices that prompt the user throughout the day with subtle reminders to move their body and take breaks from their screens have the potential to create positive change.

“The development of such interventions will require interdisciplinary and intersectoral collaborations between intervention designers, technology designers and engineers, etc.,” Huang says.

While developing these technologies may be costly in the short term, Huang believes that they will be prove financially beneficial over time.

“Healthy active lifestyles can prevent or delay the onset of many diseases or personal injuries, which does not only save healthcare expenditures for individuals and families, but also brings economic benefits to employers and the broader economy,” Huang says. “For instance, businesses with (an) active workforce can benefit from higher productivity, less absenteeism due to sickness or repetitive strain injury, less presentism and lower job turnover rates.”

But while developing this technology may save money, it’s difficult to predict the exact numbers. Each intervention must pass through multiple stages of development and evaluation before its efficacy and scalability can be known. “Cost effectiveness often needs to be determined with economic evaluation on a case-by-case basis,” Huang adds.

This study is the first to provide an overview of the efforts to minimize office workers’ SB. The results are meant to serve as a roadmap for healthcare executives trying to “locate the relevant design inputs and experts working in the field.”

Collaboration between research communities and a greater understanding of the MRC framework will be key in developing these digital technologies.

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