Monitoring your slumber has never been trendier. But does it actually work? Let’s find out
These days it seems everyone and their dog is hooked up to a fitness tracker of one type or another. Our phones track our steps. Our watched chart our heart rates. And sleep trackers, well, there’s no end to gadgets ready to talk to you about R.E.M, sleep cycles and why 20 minute naps are the best thing since sliced bread.
According to data from Headspace, the struggle to sleep is real. Twenty three percent of those surveyed by the app said they had trouble sleeping an average of four nights per week or more, but only ten percent of people use an app to help them sleep.
So what’s the truth? Whether you’ve slept on sleep trackers or think the whole thing’s a nightmare, we’re here to break down the pros and cons.
“A great night’s sleep is a wonderful thing. You wake up feeling refreshed and energised. Sometimes, it can be difficult to come by, though,” explains Dan Craig (no, not Daniel Craig. That’s a different person entirely), wellbeing lead at Champion Health. “You could be eating well and exercising regularly; but if you’re not sleeping well, you’re not a happy bunny. Persistent poor sleep is something we’d all like to avoid. However, it can be difficult to know what’s happening with your sleep in order to make improvements. As wearables have become more popular, so have the use of sleep trackers, which claim to be able to measure your sleep and suggest solutions to improve it. “
Yes and no. “For people that already sleep well, sleep trackers can be helpful if you’re interested in tracking your sleep or trying to make small tweaks to your daily routine. If you currently sleep badly on a regular basis, I’d advise that you avoid using a sleep tracker,” says Craig, Dan Craig. “Sleep trackers are currently very early in their technological development, and studies (including this one published in The Journal of Sleep Research) currently report very poor accuracy between a wearable tracker and the gold-standard, lab-based method. In most cases, the very best tracker is how you feel in yourself.”
“Sleep trackers work by using something called an accelerometers which is a small motion detector,” explains Zoë Aston, mental health expert at Headspace. “They measure how much you move around whilst you are asleep and then an algorithm can estimate how long and how well you slept. Wearable devices also use heart rate information to contribute to the data collected.”
Just because we can track our sleep data, should we? And what do we do with the data once we have it? “There are lots of potential benefits to using a sleep tracker, most of them will be personal to the user and depend on their lifestyle,” says Aston. “For example someone who is training for a marathon might use a sleep tracker to help them adjust their training the following day so they don’t burn themselves out whilst someone who might be quite hard on themselves in general might be able to use the confirmation that they haven’t slept well recently to give themselves bit of a break.”
“Sleep anxiety is a real thing, especially for those who already struggle with their sleep,” says Craig. “According to a study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, It’s often a vicious cycle, whereby folks who struggle with chronic sleep problems become more anxious over their sleep loss, which in turn leads to even worse sleep quality. In fact, data from The Journal of Sleep Research shows daytime dysfunction (tiredness, fatigue, and so on) can be directly impacted by whether your sleep tracker has told you that you slept well or badly, irrespective of whether you did or not. Whatever your stance, it’s worth taking your sleep tracker results with a pinch of salt.”
A tricky question. “There are a lot of wearable sleep trackers out there, and which one is best for you will depend on your preferences and budget,” explains Craig. “Be clear about what it is you want your sleep tracker to do. Some will only capture simple data, and others will have lots of additional features like sleep analytics, smart alarm and GPS tracking.”
Still, neither Craig nor Aston seem entirely convinced by sleep trackers. “The best tracker you’ve got are your own cues,” Craig says. “How sleepy you feel and when, how you feel when you wake up, how tired you may feel during the day – these are all vital things to consider, which no sleep tracker can measure.”
“Healthy sleep has more to do with quality of rest, than quantity of hours. Sleep meditations help create the inner conditions needed for a truly restful night,” advises Ashton.
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