The New Wearable Fitness Sensors

You’ve heard of smartphones, but how about smart fabrics? They can’t call or Tweet, but soon they could help you get fit and healthy.

Maybe you’re already wearing a bracelet that counts your steps and measures everything from your breathing rate to your calories burned. Now companies are working on clothing that does all of that — and more — without the “jewelry,” via sensors woven right into the fabric. The sensors continuously send the data to your smartphone, giving you another excuse to check your phone every two minutes (yes you, you know who you are).

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One company, OMsignal (OM as in om, from yoga), promises machine-washable undershirts (and, for the ladies, bras) that track all of the usual metrics and also your “emotive state,” which it calculates based on your breaths per minute and heart rate variability (the fluctuation in the time between heartbeats). Stressed? Your shirt may nudge you to do some deep breathing.

“We help you increase your fitness, but beyond that, we help you improve your overall wellness,” says Stéphane Marceau, co-founder and CEO of OMSignal. And there’s nothing to wear that you normally wouldn’t. “If you wear a bra normally, you don’t have to change your behavior,” he says. Unlike a bracelet, no one needs to know you’re wearing a biosensing garment. “You can wear them at the office or the opera,” says Marceau. He hopes the clothes will be commercially available by Christmas.

Even socks are getting “smart.” One company, Heapsylon, is creating washable, dryable socks (brand name Sensoria Fitness) that track not only time, speed and distance but also stride length. With the help of a magnetic anklet that snaps onto the cuff of the sock, they even send information about your footstrikes to your iPhone or Android to help you improve your form. Look for them in 2014.

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Meanwhile, the battle of the wristbands continues. These days they do just about everything but exercise for you (though one, the Up, does vibrate when you’ve been on your keister too long). Here’s a roundup of some of the current popular models:

Nike Fuelband. It measures activity by a metric called NikeFuel. It also tracks steps and calories burned and transmits data wirelessly to your smartphone. An LED readout lights up from red to green showing your progress throughout the day. “It makes me feel virtuous just by wearing it,” says one user. “The positive feedback is also nice. A little cartoon guy jumps up and down when I reach my goal. Go me!”

FitBit Flex band. If you want to wear your wristband in the pool, you can do it with the FitBit Flex, which is water resistant up to 10 meters. Like the Nike Fuelband, it talks via Bluetooth to your smartphone. Unlike the Fuelband, it also tracks sleep, including how much you move while you snooze. (If you turn like a rotisserie chicken, you’re not sleeping well.) It even vibrates to wake you up in the morning. And it works with the FitBit wireless bathroom scale.

Jawbone’s Up. The Up has the same functions as the FitBit Flex, though the manufacturer suggests removing it before swimming. It’s not wireless; you take off the bracelet and plug its connector into your phone’s headphone jack to upload the data, which an app lets you plot in a multitude of ways for more insight into your habits. The Up and the FitBit Flex also let you track your food.

What could possibly be next? Your shirt is calling: You’re out of milk.

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Marianne Wait is a writer, editor and book developer who specializes in health. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneWait.