5/25/23 · Research

Smart low-cost fabrics for improving health in sport

The UOC is leading a project to make health monitoring using radio frequency identification technology available to all
Smart clothing uses sweat to monitor health
Regular physical exercise is essential for preventing and managing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer (photo: John Arano / unsplash.com)

Regular physical exercise is essential for preventing and managing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer (photo: John Arano / unsplash.com)

Physical activity is beneficial for health, at all ages and in almost any environment. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to five million premature deaths a year could be avoided if the world population was more physically active. However, excessive or inappropriate physical exercise can lead to adverse effects in some cases, which means that health must always be closely monitored.

Some technological solutions for monitoring various physiological and biochemical indicators such as heart rate, nutrition and hydration level have become widespread in recent years. However, the use of many wearable sensors and devices has been limited to elite athletes, and the breakthroughs in electronic health have yet to benefit society as a whole.

With this in mind, team of researchers at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), led by Joan Melià Seguí, a researcher in the Wireless Networks group (WINE) at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), is studying how to make monitoring health parameters during physical exercise accessible to all. The project focuses on hydration and sweat analysis.

The research project, which has been named HydraSport, has received approval in a grants call from the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sports for research projects in science and technology applied to physical activity beneficial to health and sports medicine, and will be funded by European funds for the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan.

Smart fabrics and sweat sensors

Regular physical exercise is essential for preventing and managing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. According to the WHO, it also contributes to reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, mitigating cognitive decline, improving memory and boosting brain health. Nevertheless, according to the organization, one in four of the world's adults and four in five adolescents do not do enough physical exercise.

"In some cases, such as elderly people, those with illnesses or those who live in environments with adverse climates (such as very hot places), physical exercise is more likely to lead to negative health effects such as dehydration", explained Joan Melià Seguí. For this reason, the monitoring of basic parameters such as hydration must be made available to everyone in order to improve the conditions to make physical exercise a universal activity that is beneficial to health.

For the researchers, this means incorporating low-cost, flexible technology with no batteries or complex circuits into everyday clothing, thereby enabling health to be measured in an unassisted and non-invasive manner. The team at the UOC is studying the potential for incorporating radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies into smart fabrics that use sweat to collect information about the hydration of the person wearing them.

"We need to meet several requirements in order to monitor hydration, in a non-invasive way that can be incorporated into everyday clothes", Melià Seguí explained, who is professor at the Faculty of Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications. "First, we need a body fluid that's rich in biomarkers related to hydration, which is produced in sufficient amounts during physical exercise, and which comes into contact with clothing easily. Sweat potentially contains a great deal of important information, even though it's traditionally been an underused resource in non-invasive health monitoring".

Another requirement is to find a technology that allows data to be collected, but which goes practically unnoticed by the person using it. "We need a technology which is small-scale and has a very low cost that enables both measurement by means of a sensor and the communication of data through technologies compatible with the internet of things", added the researcher. "In its various versions, RFID is a technology that can work without a battery, as the tags are powered by radio frequency waves from the reading equipment, and its design enables basic measurements to be taken in exchange for a very low production cost".

Towards healthy physical exercise for everyone

"The primary objective is to promote physical exercise beneficial to health, following the recommendations of the WHO and the third sustainable development goal of the United Nations (ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages), by making smart clothing that permits basic monitoring of health parameters such as hydration available to everyone", concluded the UOC researcher.

The HydraSport project aims to make positive contributions in both the scientific and industrial fields, and for society as a whole. Developments like the one the UOC researchers are hoping to achieve can improve early diagnosis and prevention systems focused on the health of people who practise sports. Because it is a low-cost solution that can easily be integrated into current medical systems, the adoption barrier would be low for industry, and it could be a vehicle for making breakthroughs in digital health available to society as a whole.

The project is also seeking to demonstrate the feasibility of integrating very low-cost passive sensors with RFID technology in textile materials, which would enable the industry to develop digitized garments with a wide range of applications in sports and health prevention. "During the project we'll be investigating appropriate fabrics and technological designs", added Joan Melià Seguí. "We hope the results open the way for future collaborations with other researchers and industry".

This research contributes to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3: ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

Project EXP_75087, “HydraSport: Diseño e integración de sensores pasivos de muy bajo coste en ropa de deporte para la monitorización de niveles de hidratación” (HydraSport: Design and integration of very low-cost passive sensors in sports clothing to monitor hydration), has received funding from Spain's Ministry of Culture and Sport, through its National Sports Council and the “Convocatoria de ayudas para Proyectos de Investigación en Ciencia y Tecnología aplicada a la Actividad Física Beneficiosa para la Salud (AFBS) y la Medicina Deportiva, con cargo a los fondos europeos del Plan de Recuperación, Transformación y Resiliencia” research funding call.

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The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.

Over 500 researchers and more than 50 research groups work in the UOC's seven faculties, its eLearning Research programme and its two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The university also develops online learning innovations at its eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.

Open knowledge and the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu.

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