Almost as soon as wearable tech was developed, engineers started trying to find a way to incorporate it into clothing. In fact, as early as 1984, adidas stuck a microsensor into one of their shoes to record runners’ distance, running pace, and calorie burn. By most accounts, that shoe was pricey, clunky, and hard to use.
But fitness tech has come a long way since then. Now there’s a growing number of clothing items—shirts, leggings, shorts, and more—that feature the same type of tiny sensors that are in your Jawbone. While they’re wicking away sweat, these clothes also monitor things like heart rate, breathing rate, calories burned and more. Some even keep tabs on your form, alerting in real time you when you need an adjustment. (That’s in keeping with a new trend replacing your old fitness tracker—trainables.)
“One huge advantage of smart clothing is that it often gives more accurate heart rate readings than wearable tech you wear on your wrist,” says Molly Maloof, M.D., a physician and consultant working with healthy tech companies. “The problem with wrist monitors is that they deal with a lot of noise. To get the best heart rate reading, the best place for the monitor is near your heart. Shirts and bras can do that.” (Finally, a way to stop being fooled by your fitness tracker.)
But it’s important to remember that this technology, and this use for it, is still in relatively early days. Some smart clothing can’t be easily washed, notes Maloof. “Many pieces are undergarments or just aren’t designed to look fashionable,” so you may not want to swap your Lululemon gear for it quite yet.
What’s more, these clothes can be a little clunky. Yes, there are sensors woven right into the fabric. But typically, you also have to purchase a separate sensor that snaps onto the clothes or fits into a special sewn-on pocket and transmits the data from the sensors to your phone. “For the market to reach really dramatic penetration, the tech will have to get smaller and more invisible,” asserts Maloof. “And that’ll definitely happen in time—just look at our phones. But it’s just a matter of when.”
A final roadblock: Smart clothing is really, really expensive, admits Maloof. “Right now, this is really something that makes the most sense for semi-professional and professional athletes, who need any edge they can get.” Your regular gym-rat may not be ready to shell out hundreds of dollars for a shirt that’s hard to wash, needs to be charged, and favors function over fashion. (Check out eight more items of workout gear too expensive to get dirty.)
Still, there are always early adopters to new tech. And Maloof expects we’ll soon see more fashionable, cheaper options come onto the market as the tech becomes more advanced and demand grows. Until then, check out these six smart gear options.