How Fitness Apps & Devices Can Improve Your Sleep Every Night

How Fitness Trackers Can Improve Your Sleep Every Night

Wearables and apps can provide helpful insight, enabling you to optimize your snoozing routine using data and technology.

Wearable technology is all the buzz in the fitness world, with bracelets, smartwatches, smartphones and even smart fabrics aiming to quantify our routines into actionable information. The use of wearable tech devices is rapidly expanding, and wearables are now a multi-billion dollar market with exponential growth forecast.

From how many steps you take to your heart rate and even sleep quality, this data can be interesting and useful in several ways. The more obvious advantages include staying on top of exercise and encouraging people to meet their goals, but many fitness tracking apps can also benefit rest as well.

Improving Sleep with Fitness Apps

Typically, fitness tracking devices use actigraphy and accelerators to track movement and steps, and many incorporate heart rate monitoring as well (either via light or electrical signals or radio waves). In addition to tracking the vigorousness of exercise and calories burned, these two functions can also be used to monitor sleep cycles and events during sleep.

Benefits like these may even be more practical for most people. In a large survey on wearable technology, 37% of respondents were interested in tracking things like sleep and heart rate, while just 25% wanted to track calories burned.

In an article by The Guardian, sleep specialist and psychologist Dr. Michael Breus says of fitness trackers, “They pique people’s curiosity, and it gets them to ask ‘how is my sleep’? That’s the best thing about them.” But in terms of clinical applications, he says, “The data isn’t good enough to give them a diagnosis. They could be useful for tracking sleep trends over a longer period of time, to see when something changes, though.”

“They pique people’s curiosity, and it gets them to ask ‘how is my sleep’?”

Likewise, Dr. Clete Kushida, medical director at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, tells TODAY that long-term information gleaned from fitness trackers provides the most value, stating that it is better to, “examine the trends (e.g., several nights in a row), instead of just focusing on one night’s data.”

In addition fostering awareness of sleep trends, having access to this data may benefit rest by helping you determine what helps and hurts your sleep, make the most of your routine, and by bringing to light potential problems that may be stealing rest.

Fitness devices and apps that monitor sleep typically provide information like time taken to fall asleep, disturbances or awakenings during the night, and overall sleep time... The data adds a new dimension — seeing how trends affect sleep on an ongoing basis.

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Fitness devices and apps that monitor sleep typically provide information like time taken to fall asleep, disturbances or awakenings during the night, and overall sleep time. Some may even go into how much time you’ve spent in deep slow wave versus rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycles as well.

While generally we can tell whether or not a night of sleep felt restful, the data adds a new dimension — seeing how trends affect sleep on an ongoing basis. The ability to connect changes in sleep patterns or quality with activity throughout the day can be helpful for determining what works best for you.

For example, you might discover that a certain type or amount of exercise affects your slumber for better or worse. Likewise, you might realize that alcohol, certain foods or other activities result in taking longer to fall asleep or more awakenings throughout the night.

See Objective Information

In some ways, this data from a sleep tracking device might provide you with more peace of mind. While insufficient sleep is a very real problem for Americans, research finds that people with insomnia tend to underestimate the amount of time they sleep, which may further contribute to stress and anxiety surrounding rest. (On the other hand, people tend to overestimate their activity levels.)

Studies on “sleep misperception” have shown that people tend to perceive certain sleep states as waking, making it seem like it takes longer to fall asleep and giving the perception of less overall sleep. In one study, 42% of insomniacs who slept a normal amount underestimated their own sleep by an hour. Getting a more objective opinion could help put your situation in perspective and reduce anxiety.

Identify Sleep Issues

Only a physician or polysomnography testing at a sleep lab can diagnose sleep disorders, however personal fitness tracking apps or devices, particularly wearable devices, can shed some valuable insight.

By using motion sensing, they can highlight things like an unusual number of wakings, changes in sleep patterns, and some also record sound, which may bring attention to things like sleep apnea or other noises in your environment that could be stealing sleep.

If you find that you’re waking up feeling unrested, this information could be helpful to have and may be useful for consulting with a physician or sleep specialist, who can then help you determine what the potential problem might be and find a solution.

Optimize Your Routine

Ultimately, the primary benefit of all fitness trackers lies in helping the user analyze and improve their habits. When it comes to sleep, a fitness app or device can help you identify the amount of sleep that leaves you feeling your best, and perhaps pinpoint your ideal wake and sleep times.

Some the apps have more tools for data analysis than others, but at a minimum they will usually provide a graph showing how much you slept on a given night and over a span of time, and perhaps when you went to bed and when you woke up.

One way to use this is to jot down how you felt each day over a couple weeks, and match this up with data. You might find that turning in around 10 PM or waking at 9 AM leave you feeling best. Or, you could discover that seven hours of sleep results in more energy for you, while that oversleeping leaves you groggy, for example.

Once you know what works, you can optimize your schedule accordingly. Pair this knowledge with workout times, duration, diet, and other data points to get the most out of your fitness app or device.

Which Type of Health or Fitness Device is Right for You?

Fitness trackers: Fitbit, Apple Watch, iPhone app

Fitness tracking devices have quite a bit to offer, and there are a few different varieties that might work for you depending on budget and the functionality you are looking for.

Wearable Devices

There are several wearable fitness trackers on the market, and many offer similar functions. All of these devices measure activity and movement, and a few provide heart rate and other vitals as well. The key areas of difference include aesthetic appearance, where the device is worn, and perhaps the most important, accuracy.

One study compared the results of leading seven fitness tracking devices with clinical measurements, finding that BodyMedia Core and Fitbit Flex produced the most accurate results for measuring calories burned.

However when it comes to sleep, devices relying on actigraphy alone may not be entirely accurate, as time asleep may be overestimated when the user is lying still. Testing this, sleep specialist Dr. Christopher Winter conducted his own experiment with five popular devices, finding that the Basis Chrome (current model is the Peak) produced the most information and accurate data compared to clinical polysomnography measurements. Basis also published results of a small clinical study, showing results fairly close to polysomnography.

Overall, wearable trackers are reasonably accurate for a home device, fairly well-studied, and generally provide a good range of data. However, not everyone enjoys having to wear an extra accessory around, they may not be comfortable sleep in, they often require a smartphone or computer application, and they can be a bit pricey ($100 and up).

Smart Watches

Smart watches typically function as a cross between wearable trackers and phone apps, and are becoming a major competitor for wearable fitness trackers.

They usually provide data on movement and activity as well as sleep and sometimes heart rate. These functions might be built it, or available as an add-on application depending on the device. The Apple Watch, Samsung Gear, and LG series smartwatches are among the more popular ones with both accelerometers and heart rate monitoring capabilities.

Some users find smartwatches a more practical and functional investment than dedicated fitness trackers, however they are usually more expensive ($200+), may not be as amenable to active lifestyles, and they are generally not as well studied yet compared to a few major brands of fitness trackers. Some, like the Apple Watch and LG watches, also require a smartphone for full functionality.

Apps

The ubiquity of smartphones make fitness and sleep tracking apps a fairly popular draw, and some do offer a range of functions, with good reviews to match. Sleep Cycle is one of the more popular apps in this category (nearly 100,000 reviews on iTunes and Google Play), offering tracking of sleep cycles, analysis and a “smart alarm” feature for both iOS and Android.

One potentially unique benefit of apps is the sound recording function some offer. Apps like Sleep as Android for Android and SleepBot for iOS and Android both record sound events during the night in addition to other sleep tracking functions, which may tell you if you snore loudly or if certain noises in your environment correlate with disturbed rest.

Fitness and sleep tracking apps tend to be very affordable (free to $5 or less) and easy to find, provided you already have a smartphone. They generally require no added hardware and nothing needs to be worn during sleep, which is a plus for some.

However, since they rely solely on the phone’s accelerometer monitoring movement on the bed, they will likely not prove as accurate as devices that also monitor heart rate. If you sleep with a partner or pets, accuracy may be even more of an issue, since their movements could affect the device’s reports.

The ever-evolving category of wearable and mobile technology offers several ways to be proactive about health, with sleep being just one of the potential beneficiaries. Regardless of the tracking method you choose, simply taking the initiative to prioritize sleep and adopt healthy sleep hygiene habits can make a big difference in how well you rest.

Do you currently use a fitness tracker or app to monitor your sleep? What do you think is the most significant benefit wearable consumer devices offer?

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Rosie Osmun

Rosie is the Creative Content Manager and resident writer at Amerisleep. She finds the science of sleep fascinating and loves researching and writing about beds as an ambassador of the Amerisleep brand. Her favorite mattress is the ultra-plush Liberty Bed, and she is also passionate about traveling, painting, languages and history.