Meet the Innovator helping older people stay active

Family illness led commercial lawyer Rachel Flower to rethink her life and “do something impactful” so she developed an app to promote walking and reward active travel.

Day centre visitors are not usually first in line to try the latest smartphone technology, but volunteers over the age of 60 in Leeds are among early adopters of an app that encourages healthy living. 

Participants from the OPAL community group use the ‘Active Orbit’ app to track their journeys on foot and claim rewards for the distance travelled, such as discounts at a local café. Businesses who sponsor the initiative can also donate a sum of money to the centre based on volunteers’ collective effort. 

Not only does the app reward users for keeping active, but it helps to foster a greater sense of community among those taking part, explains its founder Rachel Flower. She adds that the testbed challenge was: ‘How might we support older adults to take part in more physical activity?’ 

“But it also became apparent that the app can help reduce social isolation and loneliness too by encouraging people to talk to each other about their experiences, make new friends and engage in healthy competition.” 

Rachel was welcomed on to Connected Places Catapult’s Homes for Healthy Ageing programme last year following an open call for SMEs with innovative ideas to get in touch to help improve social connections and wellbeing in local communities. She received a grant of £10,000 and access to a network of specialists as part of the programme’s testbed working alongside Leeds City Council. 

The Catapult’s support has been invaluable and they connected us to some great people. We attended a launch event in London with other SMEs and the Catapult introduced us to Leeds City Council, whom I doubt we would have spoken to otherwise. 

As a start-up firm we don’t have access to all of the resource we need for a testbed, so it was great that the Catapult could help us think about research questions and focus groups and carry out due diligence.” 

Tracking every minute of movement 

Active Orbit works by displaying a user’s daily activity on their phone screen with a large circle, or ‘Orbit’. Participants receive one Orbit for every 10 minutes of brisk walking (or running, cycling or playing sport) that gets the heart pumping, or for every 30 minutes taken at a leisurely pace. Ten Orbits equate to one reward to spend in a local participating retailer (or around a £2 donation to charity). 

Users are reminded to tap on the app at least once every five days to stay engaged with the initiative and avoid losing their activity data. But unlike some other fitness apps, the number of minutes spent walking is tracked automatically so the user does not have to remember to press start and stop. “We are working in a very different market segment to Strava, for instance, by targeting the three quarters of older adults who are either overweight or obese,” Rachel says.

“NHS guidelines recommend that adults take 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, which equates to around one to two rewards using our app. Obesity costs the country over £7 billion a year, and daily walking helps to prevent a range of illnesses including heart disease as well as reduce anxiety and depression.” 

Across a six week trial in Leeds, the mean ‘move minutes’ and ‘heart minutes’ rose steadily among all 25 participants, who saw an average 30% increase in activity levels. 

Recent trials of the technology locally have involved not just the day centre for older people, but a school where parents and grandparents of children tracked their walking. Instead of discounts at a coffee shop, their efforts were rewarded with corporate donations towards new playground equipment. “We wanted to explore connections that people have to the places they live and provide a means of reward to the causes they care about,” Rachel explains. 

She adds that raising funds for community projects through collective participation could be a way of councils regenerating facilities without having to access a central pot of funding. “We see Active Orbit as helping the public sector in the regions to drive forward on wellbeing initiatives.” 

Through the Leeds testbed, Rachel hopes to increase the number of active users to 250 people. She adds that outputs from the studies are being analysed by Sheffield Hallam University, via the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre. The app – which was developed in-house with architecture advice from Enterprise Blueprints and tracking technology from the University of Sheffield – is also being used in Sheffield at the Olympic Legacy Park to connect the local community and improve links to the city centre. 

Lightbulb moment realised 

Active Orbit was founded by Rachel Flower in the wake of the pandemic and represents her biggest change in career direction since founding the legal consultancy Serenwood in 2009 which helps women to set up and grow their own businesses. 

Eight years ago her youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukaemia, which made Rachel “rethink our lives and increase my passion for healthcare”. 

“I felt I needed to get up and do something more impactful, so I posted on LinkedIn a photograph and message asking who might want to access my skills and experience. I teamed up with a co-founder who I had never met before and had an idea of using technology to get more people to cycle. We agreed to join forces, but after talking to councils I understood that more of them were keen to promote walking.  

“That was my lightbulb moment, so I dug into the data to see how profound an impact walking can have on mental and physical health,” she adds. “Behavioural science has been used to reward people for stopping smoking or losing weight, so why not increasing activity levels too?” 

Rachel grew up in north Wales, excelled at school and her parents urged her to become a doctor or lawyer. “As I hate the sight of blood I decided to follow the legal path, but Mum and Dad never saw me qualify as a lawyer as they died when I was 20 due to heart disease and cancer. I then became interested in ways of increasing longevity and how technology can be used to improve healthcare.” 

She began her career as a commercial lawyer with DLA Piper and later founded a consultancy arm with the firm that focused on commercial projects. 

Progressing her career  

Rachel got involved in the planning of London’s cycle hire scheme around 15 years ago and helped to develop a lorry road user scheme before the initiative was shelved by Government. She also worked with telecoms firm BT Global Services, where as commercial director she looked after large-scale IT transformation projects in healthcare, and spent time on secondment to the NHS. 

She left full-time work when she became pregnant and became an “accidental entrepreneur” – as she puts it – founding her niche legal consultancy focusing on commercial projects and female equality issues, that grew to a team of 12. 

“Being a company founder is hard work, but now I am focused on delivering a 10 year vision for Active Orbit across the UK, helping to make a sea change in levels of activity and wellbeing as well as helping to regenerate high streets. 

“We have had interest in the app from the Middle East as its insurance regime is different to the UK’s which is a hard market in which to deploy new systems. Over the next year the plan is to continue with testing, establish the product and get more feedback as well as conduct research into behavioural change and how personalised rewards work.  

“Entrepreneurial people tend to make mistakes, but you always learn,” she adds. “There are a lot of alpha males in the technology space saying they are going to be the next ‘unicorn’ but my stance is I want a company with purpose as well as profit. 

“I’m passionate about what I do and want to leave a legacy, with a technical solution that can genuinely improve people’s lives.”