The UOC is leading a project to make health monitoring using radio frequency identification technology available to everyone. Smart clothing uses sweat to monitor health.
Physical activity is beneficial to health, at all ages and in almost all environments. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to five million premature deaths per year could be avoided if the world’s population was more physically active. However, excessive or inadequate physical exercise can lead to adverse effects in some cases, which means that health should always be closely monitored.
Some technological solutions for monitoring various physiological and biochemical indicators, such as heart rate, nutrition and hydration level, have been widespread in recent years. However, the use of many sensors and wearable devices has been limited to elite athletes, and advances in eHealth have yet to benefit society as a whole.
With that in mind, a team of researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), led by Joan Melià Seguí, a researcher in the Wireless Networks (WINE) group of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), is studying how to make health monitoring parameters during physical exercise accessible to everyone. The project focuses on hydration and sweat analysis.
The research project, named HydraSport, was approved in a call for grants 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 exercise is essential for preventing and controlling 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. However, according to the organization, one in four adults in the world and four in five teenagers do not get enough physical exercise.
In some cases, such as the elderly, the sick, or those living in environments with adverse climates (such as very hot places), physical exercise is more likely to cause negative health effects, such as dehydration.”
Joan Melià Segui, Researcher, Wireless Networks Group (WINE), Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3)
Therefore, the monitoring of basic parameters such as hydration should be made available to everyone, in order to improve the conditions for making physical exercise a universal activity that is beneficial to health.
For researchers, this means incorporating low-cost, flexible technology, without batteries or complex circuitry, into everyday clothing, thus allowing health to be measured in an unattended and non-invasive way. The UOC team is studying the potential of incorporating radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies into smart fabrics that use sweat to collect information about the wearer’s hydration.
“We need to meet several requirements to monitor hydration in a non-invasive way that can be incorporated into everyday clothing,” explained Melià Seguí, professor at the Faculty of Informatics, Multimedia and Telecommunications. “First, we need a body fluid rich in hydration-related biomarkers, which is produced in sufficient quantity during physical exercise and which comes into contact with clothing easily. Sweat potentially contains a lot of important information, although it is traditionally an underutilized resource in non-invasive health monitoring”.
Another requirement is to find a technology that allows the collection of data, but that goes practically unnoticed by those who use it. “We need a small-scale and very low-cost technology that allows both measurement using a sensor and data communication using technologies compatible with the internet of things”, added the researcher. “In its various versions, RFID is a technology that can work without batteries, as the tags are powered by radio frequency waves from the reading equipment, and its design allows carrying out basic measurements in exchange for a very low production cost”.
Towards healthy exercise for all
“The primary objective is to promote physical exercise that is beneficial to health, in line with WHO recommendations and the United Nations’ third sustainable development objective (to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages), through of making smart clothes that allow basic monitoring of health parameters such as hydration available to everyone”, concluded the UOC researcher.
The HydraSport project aims to make positive contributions in the scientific and industrial fields and to society as a whole. Developments like the one the UOC researchers hope to achieve could improve early diagnosis and prevention systems focused on the health of people who practice sports. Because it is a low-cost solution that can be easily integrated into current medical systems, the barrier to adoption would be low for the industry and could be a vehicle for making advancements in digital health available to society at large.
The project also seeks to demonstrate the feasibility of integrating very low-cost passive sensors with RFID technology into textile materials, which would allow the industry to develop digitized clothing with a wide range of applications in sports and health prevention. “During the project we will be investigating appropriate fabrics and technological designs”, added Joan Melià Seguí. “We hope the results pave the way for future collaborations with other researchers and industry.”
Open University of Catalonia