Do you really need to track your sleep with a wearable?
Data can be useful—if you're gathering it for the right reasons.
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The data we can gather about our own health has grown exponentially more detailed in recent years. Fitbits, which previously painted sleep in broad strokes, now yield information about everything from your resting heart rate to overnight pulse and blood oxygen levels as you snooze. Some even claim to track your sleep cycle and the phases you pass through overnight—from deep sleep to REM.
As the sleep writer here at Reviewed, I devote myself day and night to better understanding all things sleep. After learning so much about how sleep trackers work, I still had one lingering question: Are they universally beneficial to people’s health?
Should you use a sleep tracker?
Whether you should use a sleep tracker largely depends on the benefits you’re hoping to see, and the issue that’s driving you to reach for one of these devices.
If you’re sleeping well, it’s likely unnecessary, says Dr. Christopher Winter, a neurologist and author of The Sleep Solution and The Rested Child. The sleep expert likens it to an Olympic runner trying to supplement their speed. “I don't think that that's going to be particularly helpful because you've already arrived at your destination,” he says.
What’s more, if there’s not a specific problem you’d like to solve, the device may not prove all that useful. “For a lot of people that sleep well, it’s creating information that doesn’t have a question attached,” he says. This opens the door for negative consequences, like worrying too much about how you slept—which could create its own issues. “There's all kinds of studies that show that the way we believe we sleep influences our performance and behaviors,” Winter says.
How and why you want a tracker will play a major role in whether the device will be useful to you. “I think that people who have general interest in their health would benefit the most, since they will try to seek action to improve their sleep,” says Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep. He thinks that almost anyone stands to gain from using a sleep tracker, and personally loves them.
What are the benefits of using a sleep tracker?
You have access to an abundance of data
One of the upshots is having a detailed snapshot of your sleep. This is especially useful if, say, you experience a major life change and feel as though your sleep shifts in response. If that’s the case, you’ll have a log of sleep data to provide information on whether your zzz's are different.
They can help you problem-solve
Sleep trackers may be able to help you problem-solve and better understand your sleep, with one major limitation: You’ll probably need to consult a medical professional to make the most of data.
In fact, it’s one of the main caveats Breus provides in recommending them. In his clinical experience, the answer to whether this type of device can help change people’s sleep is a “resounding yes,” but only if they have someone, like a doctor or healthcare provider, to help them understand the information yielded.
What are the downsides of using a sleep tracker?
They only problem-solve if you take action
For some, the idea of wearing a sleep tracker feels as though it will generate sufficient change. However, just slapping something on your wrist won’t do anything to help you sleep better.
To see improvements, you’ll need to use the information to become more mindful of your habits and health.
They can provide too much information
Both Breus and Winter mention a newer term in the medical lexicon: orthosomnia. According to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, patients experiencing orthosomnia become overly preoccupied with tracking and correcting their sleep. Authors of a recent research paper explaining the condition say it’s a “perfectionist quest” adjacent to orthorexia, the unhealthy preoccupation with healthy eating.
What sleep tracker data should you focus on?
Winter says one of the most useful tracker data points is sleep duration. He particularly recommends it for people who are concerned as to whether they’re sleeping too much or too little.
If you feel as though you’re awake on and off all night, the data will likely reveal you are actually getting somewhat sufficient sleep. Similarly, if you’re worried you’re drastically oversleeping, the device’s data will likely show that, in fact, you’re overestimating just how much you sleep. “I think they provide a nice honest look at the amount that you're sleeping, and allow you to change it in one direction or the other,” Winter says.
What type of sleep tracker should you use?
No surprise: The product you should buy depends largely on your preferences and sleep. Wearables like the Apple Watch have one big downside, Winter points out, which is that they have a limited battery life. He says it’s easy to run into a recharging conundrum: “It's either charge it during the day and sleep at night—then I don't have it with me during the day—or I charge it during the day and I can't sleep at night.”
That’s where passive trackers that plug in and rest beneath or beside your mattress might come in handy. They’re hooked up to a power source, so you’ll never miss a night—barring any power outages, that is. And once they’re set up, you won’t have to think about it again. This type of device is also great for anyone who is bothered by something around their wrist at night.
I’ve tested the Google Nest Hub, a smart display that can be used to track sleep. In fact, the Google Nest Hub's Sleep Sensing was more accurate than any other options I’ve tried thus far—including a handful of wearables and my personal Fitbit Versa.
Finally, there’s newer off-the-beaten path technology like the Oura Ring, which many swear by. Instead of the wrist-based tracking that Fitbits and running watches like Garmin provide, these merely go around your finger to collect data.
Are there privacy concerns with sleep trackers?
Unfortunately, there’s not a clear cut answer to sleep as with any product that’s collecting data on your well-being. (Sleep, or a lack thereof, is a strong predictor of certain health conditions, including high blood pressure.)
Perhaps you’ve heard rumblings that insurance companies might use data to set premiums for folks—and that data from wearables could negatively affect these rates. Neither Breus nor Winter are overly concerned about this application of data—in fact, to my question on insurance rates and sleep trackers, Breus simply says, “You are reading too many conspiracy theories.”
Winter says he doesn’t know of any sleep trackers that share data in that manner—and that he believes users would almost certainly be made aware of it before their data was shared in that context.
It’s still worth keeping on the radar, but it seems to be a concern of the distant future, if ever, as opposed to right now.
Are sleep trackers worth it?
Winter likes sleep trackers, especially passive ones. The data is there when you want it, but it’s not like a wearable which may beckon for you to check the stats on a daily basis. But, when you notice a change in how you’re feeling overall, you can go back even a couple months and compare the data.
Ultimately, the advantages come down to one major factor: what you do with the data and information they provide. If you’re not able to ask a specific question, or consult your healthcare provider about what you’re seeing, the devices may not provide that much of a benefit. However, if you’re willing to make changes to your sleep and ask professionals for aid in understanding data, they absolutely can be worth the cost and may dramatically improve your sleep.
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