Do sleep apps help you sleep? Monica Shaw tests out Fitbit and Sleep Cycle

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I’m a data-driven person – I like numbers, charts, graphs, and I especially like collecting data on my daily activities, particularly exercise and food. Most recently I’ve turned my data appetite towards sleep and have been experimenting with a couple of sleep tracking devices to see how I’m doing. How do they compare?

FitBit One

The FitBit One is a little device that I wear 24-7 which is like an uber pedometer, tracking the number of steps I’ve walked, floors I’ve climbed and general activity levels throughout the day. It can also track sleep.

The sleep function is pretty simple to use. The Fitbit has a small button (visible above on the right). Press and hold the button and it starts tracking your sleep. Press and hold the button again to stop sleep tracking. The Fitbit reports back (via an online dashboard or an app on your phone) on the time it took you to fall asleep, how many times you awoke during the night, and how many total hours you slept.

Fitbit reportLooking at the picture above, you can see a couple of pitfalls here – the Fitbit seems to count the off-and-on dozing of early morning (i.e. hitting the snooze alarm) as times awake, which is fine, but it can make it appear as if you’ve had a miserable night’s sleep. Also, what if you forgot to hit the Fitbit button again when you wake up (as I’ve often done)? This can give you other wonky readings. Granted, you can adjust this manually in the app, but who can be bothered?

My other beef with the Fitbit is having to wear the device on my body while I’m sleeping. You can clip it onto your pyjamas somewhere, or wear a bracelet with a pocket for the Fitbit, but either way it can cause mild discomfort which could otherwise detract from that much sought after good night’s sleep.

Having said all this, I’m a big fan of the Fitbit and have been wearing it almost continuously for about two years. I’ve found it hugely motivating (see this post on how I’ve increased my activity levels since wearing it). However, during all of that time I’ve only used the sleep function for maybe one or two weeks total. That should tell you something.

Sleep Cycle iPhone App

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Sleep Cycle is a pretty nifty iPhone app that does a lot more than just track hours slept and times awake. It also works as an alarm clock and lets you track sleep in relation to other user-defined metrics (e.g. “drank alcohol”, “stressful day”, “exercised”, “went to bed on a full stomach”, etc.).

The functionality is pretty simple: tell Sleep Cycle when to start tracking, optionally set an ideal waking time, put the phone somewhere next to you on your bed, then away you go. The phone tracks your sleep quality throughout the night (from Awake to Sleep to Deep Sleep) and will trigger its alarm so that it goes off at a time when your body is naturally more prepared to wake up.

There are some obvious pitfalls to this sleep app, the major one being that you have to have your phone in bed with you (plugged into the wall). I can deal with sharing my bed with a small object (I often fall asleep with my book next to me) but the iPhone in particular is distracting in itself. Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night I almost instinctively switch on my iPhone and see if I got any email – surely that can’t be good for my sleep?

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What I do like about Sleep Cycle is its ability to spot trends. That is, does “drinking coffee” or “exercise” affect my sleep? Though the data currently suggests that alcohol doesn’t have a negative impact on my sleep, which I intuitively know isn’t the case.

The big problem with both Sleep Cycle and Fitbit is the physical intrusion which some argue can have an adverse affect on sleep. I definitely find this the case with Sleep Cycle, in fact, I’ll be making a move today to institute “no iPhones in bed” as a general life rule.

Further, I question the accuracy of both of these devices. I already mentioned Fitbit’s rogue early morning readings. Another person reported in a recent MarketWatch article that the Fitbit “would sometimes count time when he was lying still in bed trying to doze off as time spent sleeping”.

As data hungry as I am, I find that the sleep data hasn’t really helped me much on the path to a good night’s sleep. What’s better is simply learning how to relax, be it through meditation or simply reading a book, and keeping my sleeping space as free from distraction as possible.

Monica and RockyMonica Shaw is a food and fitness enthusiast and the author of Smarter, Fitter a blog that’s all about the pursuit of feeling awesome – through real food, an active life and good people to share it with. She’s also written an ebook on dairy, soy and gluten-free smoothies: Smarter Fitter Smoothies.

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