What You Should Know About Sleep Tracking

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The quantified self movement has managed to root itself pretty securely in the athletic community. Which makes a lot of sense. The ability to track a huge variety of aspect of your health and fitness give you an immense amount of power over your workouts and lifestyle so that you can always be making any changes necessary. These devices have really been a gift.

But, some experts feel like the sheer number of measurements taken by these devices has simply gone too far. According to some, these devices – particularly when it comes to sleep tracking – could actually be causing more harm then good. Why? What’s the problem with using these devices to track your sleep?

The Purpose of Sleep Tracking

Before diving into the arguments made by detractors, though, it’s important to be clear about what these devices are and why people use them. ¬†As the oh-so-descriptive name suggests, sleep trackers monitor and report the quality of your sleep. Generally, these are not dedicated devices but are actually fitness trackers that also have these sleep-centric features. The idea is that you can use one device to optimize both your activity and your recovery from said activity.


For the most part, these trackers use your heart rate information combined with any noticeable movement to gauge how deeply you’re sleeping. the basic idea is that, the lower your heart rate and the less you move, the deeper your sleep.

Accuracy Issues

In reality, this is a very simplistic approach to quantifying a very complex biological process. Put simply, there is no way for these fitness trackers to accurately measure the quality of your sleep with their limited number of sensors.

This is underscored by the fact that these wrist-worn devices struggle to accurately measure your heart rate, a measurement that they heavily rely on to judge the quality of your sleep. According to some studies, even the most accurate fitness trackers can misread your actual pulse – as measured by an EKG – by as much as 30 beats per minute.

Again, because of their limited sensors, sleep trackers also lack the ability to judge between different stages of sleep. Remember, the most accurate why to assess sleep progression is to monitory brain activity. Which these devices just cannot do.

Behavioral Implications

So, the primary problem with these devices is simply that they are inaccurate and just cannot do what they are marketed for. Unfortunately, the use of sleep trackers can also have a number of negative consequences.

For one thing, they require you to wear the device while you sleep. Depending on the exact design, this could be uncomfortable or difficult to get used to. So, right away, the monitor itself can become a physical obstacle between you and a good night’s rest.

But, reliance on these trackers and their feedback can also distort your view of what constitutes “healthy” sleep and even reinforce bad sleep maintenance habits. In some cases, individuals were purposefully game the system, sitting in bed more than they normally would in order to force the tracker to give them more favorable results.

Not only is this completely counterproductive, it goes against much of the advice offered by sleep therapists. According to the National Sleep Federation, you should completely separate your bed from work or other stressful situations. Bringing those things into your bed so that you can trick the sleep sensor is going to disrupt your sleep schedule.

Then there’s the fact that you’re building your view of sleep around an inaccurate device. For individuals who do have sleep disorders and seek medical attention, this reliance of sleep trackers can cause confusion, frustration and even difficulty in getting appropriate treatment.

Why It Matters

Sleep is incredibly important to athletes. Each time you run, you are damaging your muscles, stressing your system and forcing you body to make adjustments. It’s during sleep that that damage is repaired and those adjustments are actually made. You improve during rest and recovery, then, rather than during the exercise itself.

It’s sort of a frustrating situation, therefore, that these devices intended to assist in your training could actually be working against you. In the case of sleep tracking, however, that unfortunately seems to be the case.

While those trackers can be incredibly useful during the day, it’s probably best to take them off at night. Instead of relying on sleep trackers, do what you can to build a healthy sleep routine. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Avoid alcohol and caffeine close to bed time and do your best to remove disconnect your bedroom from stress or anxiety. Many people also benefit from developing a relaxing pre-bed ritual to help you wind down and let go of the stress of the day.

These practical steps can make it easier for you to achieve adequate amounts of quality sleep. If you continue to feel like you simply aren’t sleeping enough or deeply enough, speak to your doctor.