The Reliability Of Sleep Trackers For Sleep Data

Lauren Harris our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 3/4/2021 9:52 AM
One in three of us regularly suffer from poor sleep. By this we mean not entering the correct stages of the sleep cycle often enough. During the optimum eight hours of slumber, we should be getting per night, the body should enter three different stages of sleep on a cyclical rotation: light, deep and rapid eye movement (REM). The most important stage of this being deep sleep, of which a healthy adult should be entering for around one to two hours. 

Unfortunately, it is often the case, for a vast number of reasons, that many adults struggle to wake up feeling refreshed. From absorbing too much blue light from screens before bed, poor dietary habits or increased levels of stress, there are many factors into why good sleep eludes nearly a third of us daily. Over the past year especially, as a direct result of the pandemic, our sleepless nights have become increasingly worse. It seems anxiety related to COVID-19 has spiked our inability to get good rest.

What are the dangers of persistent low-quality sleep?


Continual restless nights can have profound effects on both our bodies and our minds. It can place immense stress on the immune system, increasing the risk of becoming seriously ill. Other life-threatening diseases also linked with poor sleep include obesity, heart disease and diabetes. 

Our mental state can also be incredibly damaged by consistent poor sleep. Not only does our ability to concentrate reduce, but our susceptibility to mental ill-health, such as depression, increases too. 

It is no surprise then that, as a global population, our obsession with the amount of sleep we get per night has skyrocketed in the past few years, consequently seeing the boom of sleep tracking technology. From wearable tech such as the Fitbit and Apple Watches, to other bedside devices and bed sensors, the market for sleep trackers is estimated to reach $62bn in 2021 alone. But is this technology a reliable source of data for our sleep patterns?

The problems with sleep trackers


Wearable technology can only go so far when it comes to measuring our quality of sleep. Watches especially can usually measure aspects of our body such as heart rate and movement – all of which can be used as indicators of restfulness. However, their consistent accuracy is questionable. According to research, sleep trackers are 78 per cent accurate when it comes to identifying whether we are awake or asleep, which is a pretty good statistic for developing technology, however, this drops dramatically to 38 per cent when estimating how long it takes for users to fall asleep. For true accuracy, sleep should be measured through brainwave activity, eye movement, muscle tension, movement and breathing – all of which can only be looked at through a medical polysomnogram. 

Additionally, much like many other sources of technology, sleep trackers have become a troublesome culprit for obsessive behaviour. In 2017, scientists coined the term Orthosomnia, the recognition of a real problem many were, and still are, having with become obsessive, to the point of mental ill-health, around tracking sleep. As stated by neurologist, Guy Leschziner; “If you have a device that is telling you, rightly or wrongly, that your sleep is really bad then that is going to increase your anxiety and may well drive more chronic insomnia."

However, sleep trackers aren’t all bad. While not a tool to be used for sleep disorder diagnosis, they can be useful gadgets to help rethink our sleep habits to aim for a better night’s sleep. 

The positives of sleep trackers


While questions around the accuracy of this technology are prominent, trackers, overall, are pretty good when it comes to recording total sleep time. If used as a guide rather than an aid, sleep trackers can help users get into better sleep habits which in turn will undoubtedly improve their quality of sleep. 

If the data is showing that users are only achieving five hours of sleep per night, and they are going to bed very late and rising early, then users may be encouraged to practice better sleep hygiene. From removing any blue light from the bedroom space, to taking an hour before bed to engage in less stimulating activities, such as reading, and practicing methods such as mindfulness or meditation to induce relaxation. 

Sleep data from trackers can also be a useful tool to begin conversations with health professionals. Someone who regularly finds themselves groggy in the morning, with the notion that their sleep is badly disturbed, may find solace in sleep tracking data and it may give them the confidence to seek relevant help. While this sort of technology and its data will not be the end point for a diagnosis, it may give both the user and their doctor insight into any potential problems or issues they may be having with sleep. 

Ultimately, those using sleep trackers shouldn’t be losing sleep over the data they present. Instead, ensure you are taking the analysis provided with a pinch of salt, and explore this in tandem with how you feel in yourself to assess whether you need to make changes to your sleep routine or seek help for a potential sleep disorder. Data is an incredibly important too, but using this in the right way is absolutely critical.

If you're looking for a new role to get you out of bed in the morning or to build up your dream data team, we may be able to help. Take a look at our latest opportunities or get in touch with one of our expert consultants to find out more. 

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