WELLNESS
07/18/2019 05:45 EDT

Do Sleep Trackers Actually Work? Experts Weigh In.

Sleep trackers have become increasingly popular, but many experts think they're bogus. Here's why.

We’re all well aware that getting a good night’s sleep can do wonders for our overall health and well-being. It can make you more alert and more creative. It can strengthen your heart, your mind and your mood

It’s no wonder people have become obsessed with tracking their sleep. Nearly22% of U.S. adults use a wearable sleep tracking device, and about half of the nation’s population would consider buying one.

But even though sleep trackers have become increasingly popular in recent years, many health experts think they’re kind of, well, bogus. Not only are the tools fairly inaccurate, but they also don’t offer a deep, comprehensive look at our sleep patterns.

“The common use of commercially available sleep trackers by the general public should be done so with a clear understanding that these are very limited tools that at best can tell you a bit more about your sleep duration and sleep timing,” said Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, a sleep medicine physician and chief medical officer of the sleep health company FusionHealth.

Here’s what you should know about sleep trackers and why they might not be all they’re cracked up to be:

Sleep Trackers Tend To Be Inaccurate

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The basic methodology behind sleep trackers is that when you're awake, you move more, and when you're asleep, you're still. But that's not always the case, according to Richard Shane, a behavioral sleep therapist.

Sleep trackers typically measure how long you’re sleeping based on your movement throughout the night. The basic methodology behind the tool is that when you’re awake, you move more, and when you’re asleep, you’re still. 

This might be true, generally, but it isn’t always the case, said Richard Shane, a behavioral sleep therapist and developer of the Sleep Easy method.

“Somebody could be, let’s say, a serious insomniac and they have trained themselves to lay very still when they’re not sleeping, and the activity monitor or motion sensor will record that as being asleep,” Shane said. “Likewise, somebody could be sleeping but very restless in their sleep, and their device might measure that as being awake.”

Consequently, these trackers don’t get a laser-sharp look at how long you’ve been asleep. In certain cases, people who may be zonked out might assume they’re missing out on z’s based on false data. And what’s even more concerning is that people with actual sleep disorders may be fooled into thinking their sleep is deep or healthier than it really is, Durmer said.

They’re Also Pretty Limited

Not only do most sleep trackers tend to be inaccurate, but they’re also fairly limited. To get a solid understanding of your sleep quality, you need to evaluate much more than the duration of your snooze. 

Mapping out your brain waves is the best way to monitor what stage of sleep you’re in (like REM sleep, for example) and determine if you may have a sleep disorder, Shane said. Eye movement helps, too, as do breathing patterns and blood oxygen levels — all things an app or wearable can’t track. 

The insights that sleep trackers provide — such as a report saying you got “light sleep” — aren’t considered to be clinical or medically sound definitions. Rather, this is more or less the company’s way of interpreting and making sense of your sleep data, Durmer said. Additionally, the trackers also don’t share the reasons behind your sleep patterns or potential steps you can take to improve your sleep.

There Are Some Benefits To Using The Trackers

That said, sleep trackers can give you some useful information to work with, according to Johns Hopkins MedicineSleep trackers can help you recognize patterns in your sleep and adjust certain habits. For example, if you feel sluggish when you go to bed later, try shifting your bedtime to an hour or two earlier. And if you notice that you sleep more soundly after a workout, make a point to exercise more.

While the trackers can’t replace formal testing, they may help your doctor determine if it may be time for you to undergo further examination or see a sleep specialist, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Bottom Line: Your Sleep Tracker Isn’t Doing You A Ton Of Favors

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"If you are not sleeping well and would like to improve your sleep, a tracker is not going to provide you with a solution," said Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, a sleep medicine physician and chief medical officer of the sleep health company FusionHealth.

If you do decide to use a sleep tracker, understand that you’re getting a narrow analysis. And try not to get too obsessed with monitoring your sleep patterns. 

Some people could develop orthosomnia, or a disorder in which you become obsessed with getting a perfect night’s sleep. Instead of improving people’s sleep, using a tracker can lead to sleep-related anxiety or sleep perfectionism, keeping them up in the wee hours of the night.

“My advice to people is trust your body more than a device,” Shane said. Pay attention to what helps you sleep better, and take note of how you feel. 

If you want to get into the nitty gritty of your sleep patterns, go see a sleep doctor. They can conduct a polysomnography, or a medical sleep test, to get a thorough look at the various factors that may be affecting your sleep each night.

“If you are not sleeping well and would like to improve your sleep, a tracker is not going to provide you with a solution,” Durmer said. “The complexity of our sleep and circadian rhythms requires a much richer data set, including specific and personal, medical, well-being and psychological information in order to help you improve your sleep.”

Lastly, don’t skimp out on proper sleep hygiene, Shane said. Go to bed at the same time every night, keep the room quiet and dark, and avoid screen time before bed. Most of the time, that’s way more effective than measuring your sleep with a tracker.

“Living With” is a guide to navigating conditions that affect your mind and body. Each month in 2019, HuffPost Life will tackle very real issues people live with by offering different stories, advice and ways to connect with others who understand what it’s like. In July, we’re covering sleep and sleep disorders. Got an experience you’d like to share? Email wellness@huffpost.com.

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