Can sleep trackers really improve your sleep (and heath)?

August 31, 2021 - 20 min read

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What is a sleep tracker?

What exactly do sleep trackers monitor?

Do sleep trackers help with sleep?

Benefits of using a sleep tracker to assess your sleep cycles

How to recognize your sleep pattern

How to choose a sleep tracker

What type of sleep trackers are there?

4 best sleep trackers

Build healthy sleep practices with sleep trackers

There’s no denying the importance of sleep in our busy lifestyles. And there’s also no denying that incredible feeling of waking up after a good night’s rest.

Unfortunately, having a restless night of poor sleep is something we have to deal with from time to time. But learning what causes a good or bad night's sleep can be hard to identify.

Enter sleep trackers.

These nifty pieces of wearable technology have changed the game of sleep. By monitoring your sleep patterns, you can see how much quality sleep you're getting. 

This kind of valuable information empowers you to take control of your sleep and optimize your sleep experience.

But how do sleep trackers work? And can they really improve your sleep?

We’ve covered everything you need to know below, from the best sleep trackers on the market to how to choose the right sleep tracker for you.

What is a sleep tracker?

Until fairly recently, the only option available for assessing sleep quality was manually keeping a sleep diary.

Of course, there was also the option of spending a few nights in a sleep clinic. This is an effective but expensive option that is not accessible to everyone.

Nowadays, there is a more affordable option for tracking your sleep quality.

Personal sleep trackers are readily available for purchase online. They can provide valuable insights into your individual sleeping patterns. They also show how your sleeping patterns affect your overall health.

Sleep trackers come in different forms, including wearables, bed sensors, and bedside devices.

But how do sleep trackers work?

Most sleep trackers measure your sleep quality and quantity with accelerometers. This is a small motion detector that measures how much movement you're making when sleeping. Based on this data, an algorithm estimates your sleep time and quality.

Some sleep trackers also monitor other data, like heart and breathing rate. Different heart and respiration rates are associated with different sleep stages. 

This kind of physiological data paints a picture of your sleeping patterns and can indicate sleep disorders like sleep apnea.

What exactly do sleep trackers monitor?

As with all technological devices, the features of these sleep trackers will vary. But they usually share a few common capabilities. 

These include:

  • Sleep quality tracking. Sleep trackers can detect when your sleep is interrupted. This lets you know when you're being disturbed, tossing and turning, or waking during the night.
  • Sleep duration tracking. These trackers monitor the time you are inactive. This allows you to know when you fall asleep at night and when you first begin to wake each morning.
  • Sleep phase tracking. An REM sleep tracker tracks your sleep phases. It then sets your alarms to go off during periods in which you are in lighter sleep phases instead of REM sleep. This makes waking up easier and avoids breaking your crucial REM sleep cycles.
  • Lifestyle factor tracking. Some trackers ask you to enter information about your lifestyle and even work-life balance that could be affecting your sleep. This could include your diet, caffeine and sugar consumption, and daily stress levels.
  • Environmental factor tracking. Some sleep trackers can record environmental factors in your sleep environment. For example, they may record the temperatures and amount of ambient light in your bedroom. This enables you to optimize your sleeping environment. For example, you can minimize light or keep your room at cooler temperatures.

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Do sleep trackers help with sleep?

Every one of us will spend around a third of our lives asleep.

The amount and quality of sleep you enjoy have a lasting impact on you when you’re awake. It affects your mental fitness, physical well-being, and even your risk of developing lifestyle diseases such as obesity, depression, and type 2 diabetes. 

Considering how vital sleep is to our health and our quality of life, it’s only natural to wonder how long you really sleep each night. And if you are getting enough sleep to keep your body and mind in optimal condition.

There are many potential benefits of using sleep trackers and a sleep cycle app. But these technologies aren't without their limitations. Let’s take a closer look.

Benefits of using a sleep tracker to assess your sleep cycles

  • Sleep trackers can tell you exactly when you fall asleep and when you wake up. This is a valuable tool that helps you visualize and track your cycles and correct them if you feel it’s necessary.
  • Many wearable trackers include accelerometers that can measure your movements while you sleep. This can provide insights into how much you are tossing and turning in the night. A lot of movement could indicate potential sleep disorders or a lack of deep sleep.
  • Some trackers can monitor whether you are asleep or awake by measuring your breathing patterns, heart rate variability, and other key metrics like blood oxygen saturation and temperature. This data can offer insights into whether you are in a waking or restful state.
  • Many wearable trackers will provide lifestyle and fitness tracking. This gives you more insights into your overall lifestyle and physical health. Some trackers will encourage you to stay active whether that’s a brisk walk around the block or visiting the gym. If this isn’t possible, it’s important to stay active at home with virtual workouts such as virtual yoga.

It’s important to note that these assessments are not always completely accurate. Many sleep trackers judge whether you are asleep largely based on heart rate and movement. So if you lie still for long enough and your heart rate is low, it might assume you are asleep.

In general, sleep trackers overestimate how much time we spend sleeping. Because they rely on prediction models, they aren't error-free.

But using a tracker can encourage you to track your sleep habits more consistently. This is often helpful when attempting to diagnose or rectify sleep issues.

Some people find it easy to get a full seven or eight hours’ worth of sleep each night, and others don't. If you struggle to maintain a regular sleep schedule, using a sleep tracker may help you to get to the bottom of it.

An advanced tracking app can also identify and alert you to certain factors that could be hindering your sleeping patterns. In turn, this allows you to optimize your sleep hygiene and your health as a result.

While sleep trackers won’t give your good sleep hygiene on their own, they can be a valuable tool that helps you improve your quality of sleep.

 

How to recognize your sleep pattern

There are a few key indicators that make up a typical full human sleep cycle. During the average night, you will cycle through five stages of sleep.

Let’s break them down.

Stage 1

The first sleep stage only lasts a few minutes. It is light and relatively easy to wake from if you are disturbed in some way.

Stage 2

This stage is also fairly light. During the second stage of sleep, your brain waves will start to slow as you slip into a deeper state of rest.

smiling-sleeping-woman-in-deep-sleep-sleep-trackers

Stage 3 and 4

During these stages, you will move into a deeper state of sleep that's usually more difficult to wake from. It’s during these stages that your body repairs its cells and tissues and accelerates your immune function.

Stage 5

Stage five is more commonly known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is the final stage in the sleep cycle. 

Once it has begun, your brain will become more active, and dreams will occur. During REM, your brain is processing a lot of information and creating long-term memories.

This sleep cycle repeats itself about every 90–110 minutes. As sleep progresses, your REM cycles will also increase in length.

How to choose a sleep tracker

Finding the right sleep tracker will depend on your personal preferences, needs, and intended uses for the device.

Consider choosing a device with the following cornerstone features:

1. Sleep tracking

This technology captures critical data related to your sleep cycles. This includes:

  • Heart rate 
  • Respiration 
  • Sleep interruptions 
  • Snoring 
  • Body temperature

Quality sensors may also monitor ambient temperatures, humidity and noise levels, and light levels.

2. Sleep analytics

Sleep analytics algorithms use sleep tracking data to provide more concise information about sleep patterns and quality.

Top-tier devices will give detailed reports showing you how your sleep patterns have changed over time. Some will also provide you with daily sleep scores and link your activity levels to the duration and quality of your sleep.

3. Battery life

Do you plan on using your tracker only for sleep, or will you wear it throughout the day too? 

If you’re wearing your sleep tracker 24/7, it’s crucial that it has a long battery life. This will allow you to continuously monitor key health metrics. 

Most trackers will need to be charged every few days.

4. Additional features

Many sleep trackers seek to offer extra value by boasting features such as:

  • GPS 
  • Free sleep cycle app trials 
  • Fitness tracking and coaching
  • Third-party app integrations
  • Nutrition tracking

These features may make your device easier to use and more insightful. But be warned that they can also increase its price point.

What type of sleep trackers are there?

There is a wide range of sleep trackers on the market today, and new devices are being released on a near-weekly basis. 

Here are a few of the most common types:

Sleep tracker watch

Most sleep trackers come in the form of wearable trackers that you can strap to your wrist and wear while you sleep. Using built-in accelerometers, the smartwatch can determine if you had a restless night or slept peacefully without much movement. 

They also track heart rate, another indicator of your sleeping state. Some watches evaluate sleep quality based on the duration of different sleep cycle stages. 

A sleep tracker watch works in conjunction with an app on your phone to generate and monitor tracking results, but you don’t need your phone to record metrics. 

Smart ring

Relatively new to the industry, sleep-tracking smart rings are also wearable sleep trackers. 

In addition to several other metrics, these rings measure:

  • Time spent in each sleep stage 
  • Heart rate and its variability 
  • Breathing rate 
  • Skin temperature 

They also show how these vital signs change when you sleep, meditate, and go about daily activity. Based on this data, sleep tracking rings show your sleeping trends over time and make personalized suggestions to improve your sleep.

sleeping-woman-in-bed-using-rem-sleep-trackers

Under-mattress sleep tracker

These ‘no-contact’ trackers monitor your sleep using sensor strips under or on top of the mattress. The sensors track data like heart rate, breathing, sleep stage cycles, body movement, and snoring.

This type of sleep monitor is ideal because you don’t need to remember to put it on your body to track sleep. Some models may also clip onto your pillow or duvet or sit beside your bed on your bedside table.

4 best sleep trackers

We’ve covered how sleep trackers work and their benefits. But what’s the best sleep tracker on the market today?

Here are our top picks:

1. Oura Ring

The Oura Ring is a smart ring that uses an infrared LED sensor to track your sleep. 

It tracks your body temperature, pulse, and body movement during the night. Based on this data, you can view extensive information about your sleep cycles. 

The ring is lightweight, compact, and discreet. These factors make it an attractive option for those who’d prefer not to wear a watch. It also has an impressive battery life of up to seven days, and it is water-resistant.

The Oura sleep cycle smartphone app helps you understand your sleep by giving REM, deep, and light sleep insights. It gives you a personalized Sleep and Readiness score every morning to help you make better lifestyle choices.

Oura’s Moment feature includes guided meditation and mindful breathing sessions. These promote good sleep hygiene and personal wellness.

Price: The Oura Ring price ranges from $299–$999, depending on the color and style.

2. Tempur-Pedic SleepTracker

This non-wearable sleep tracker has sensors that lie under your mattress. 

You’ll receive two sensors, one for each side of the bed, that give separate data for both sleepers. This makes it a good choice for couples.

This sleep tracker measures sleep quality, sleep stages, and sleep duration. It also measures your bedroom environment, such as air purity, humidity, and temperature. 

Tempur-Pedic’s easy-to-use app is compatible with Apple, Android, Google Home devices, and Amazon Alexa. It also comes with an AI sleep coach that offers feedback on your sleep data.

This type of sleep tracker is ideal for sleepers who find wearable devices like watches uncomfortable to sleep with.

Price: The Tempur-Pedic SleepTracker retails for $299. But keep in mind that it works for two people.

woman-on-the-couch-sleeping-sleep-trackers

3. Biostrap

If a wearable sleep tracking device is what you’re looking for, Biostrap is a great option.

Biostrap automatically collects clinically reliable biometric data every two to ten minutes for comprehensive sleep analysis during the night. It uses complex sleep algorithms and machine learning to give you a sleep score out of 100.

What sets it apart from other watch-like devices is it uses infrared and red light-based PPG signals instead of green light technology. Deeper skin penetration from this type of red LED means more accurate sleep data collection.

As well as heart rate and respiratory rate, the Biostrap sleep tracker watch integrates with your phone’s microphone to track snoring levels. It also analyzes your arm and leg movement during sleep.

Price: Biostrap devices range from $249 for the Recover Set to $329 for the Active Set that includes exercise tracking.

4. Fitbit Inspire

A more affordable option, the Fitbit Inspire is a fitness tracking device to help you build healthy habits. Although it doesn’t track your heart rate, you can still monitor your sleep in the Fitbit app.

The wrist-based device automatically detects your sleep when you wear your device to bed. When your body hasn’t moved for about an hour, your Fitbit device records that you’re asleep.

Based on this data, the Fitbit app shows your sleep pattern by registering your time spent awake, restless, and asleep. You can also set a sleep schedule in the app to help you reach your sleep goal.

Because the Fitbit Inspire doesn't track heart rate, you can’t know how much time you're spending in light, deep, and REM sleep. But it does give you a basic overall view of your sleeping pattern, making it a great entry-level sleep tracker.

As well as sleep, the Fitbit Inspire tracks your steps, distance, active minutes, and calories burned.

Price: The Fitbit Inspire 2 retails for $99.95.

Build healthy sleep practices with sleep trackers

Ultimately, a sleep tracker is a valuable tool that could make it easier to effectively track and optimize your sleep patterns. 

The data obtained by these devices could help you identify sleep issues and disorders and provide insights into making the right lifestyle choices to remedy them. 

Keep in mind that tracking your sleep doesn't mean you’re going to automatically sleep better. Changing behaviors and habits based on what you learn from the device is the key.

Need help? Talk to a BetterUp coach today. They can help you reach your goals and improve your overall well-being.

strengthen well-being - coaching for individuals
Published August 31, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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