Tracking My Sleep Kept Me Awake at Night
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Tracking My Sleep Kept Me Awake at Night

Technology and sleep. Why do we try and force the two together?
January 18, 2016, 2:00pm

I had problems sleeping last summer.

For nights on end, the rhythmic pounding of my pulse would keep me awake. It wasn't the stress of work, relationships, or the crippling cost of living in London.

It was my Fitbit, clamped against my wrist, measuring my heartbeat, waiting for me to fall asleep.

***

It was philosopher Lewis Mumford in the 1930s who said that technology can be equally oppressive and liberating.

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In 2014, Americans bought more than 3.3 million fitness trackers. Latest figures from market researcher IDC show that Fitbit shipped4.7 million fitness trackers just in the third quarter of 2015, up from 4.4 million in the second quarter. In 2015, IDC said that 21.3 million fitness trackers were shipped worldwide.

Fitbit, like its rivals at Nike and Jawbone to name just two, has catapulted to the forefront of wearable technology in the last two years. The Fitbit Charge HR, one of the company's premium "active fitness" smartbands, keeps a constant eye on the wearer's calories spent, distance walked, floors climbed, and most relevant to me: sleep.

The device, connected to an app on my phone, can detect when I am still based on the movements of my wrist and recognize when I fall asleep. Every morning, I would check the app to see how many hours I slept and whether they were restless or peaceful. My average, it turned out, was around five hours.

This coloured me all kind of anxious. Do I sleep enough? I thought it was meant to be eight hours a night, but then others say six. If I breathe slower, will that help? Change positions? So many questions, just two hours before work.

It became almost impossible for me to fall asleep peacefully because the Fitbit was making me so apprehensive. I would lie awake in bed worrying that the night before's sleep wasn't good enough (just one hour and 56 minutes of solid, undisturbed sleep, according to my app) and that tonight's could be even worse. Sometimes, I would try to lie perfectly still in order to fool the Fitbit into thinking I was asleep.

Sometimes, I would try to lie perfectly still in order to fool the Fitbit into thinking I was asleep

Sleep expert Colin Espie, a professor at the University of Oxford, confirmed the insanity of this. While sleep apps can make us more aware of the need for better sleep hygiene, they can also exacerbate the problem.

"It's important not to become too obsessed with the data you are getting," Espie said. "Don't catastrophise if, according to your data you're not getting to sleep fast enough or spending enough time in deep sleep. If you allow your natural sleep pattern to take over it will give you the amount of total sleep that you personally require."

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Anxious thoughts can lead to chronic sleep problems, he said, which means it can be counterproductive to worry about how long you're sleeping for.

But this is exactly what wearable technology vendors want you to do: become obsessed with data tracking and micromanaging your health. Unfortunately Fitbit wouldn't respond to requests for comment by Motherboard.

***

Everyone seems to be aware these days about how much sleep they should be getting, the impact that it might have on their lives, and whether hitting snooze ten times means we're just not doing something right.

Wearable devices are a relatively cheap and easy method of quelling these fears, but sometimes trackers can obscure the more important signal of health: how well we feel.

"When it comes to the amount of sleep you get, it's important to emphasize that there's no standard number of hours that will work for everyone. We're all different," Espie said. "The most important thing is that you feel refreshed and energized by the sleep that you've had."

In addition to being a bit too one-size-fits-all to reflect truly helpful data, most fitness trackers can be fairly imprecise.

The technology used to measure your sleep in most fitness trackers today, which according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine uses a process known as actigraphy, detects when you're still for a long period of time using an accelerometer and makes its own judgement as to when you've fallen asleep when periods of stillness are identified.

This is exactly what wearable technology vendors want you to do: become obsessed with micromanaging your health

This technological affirmation seems to lend some users comfort."Most of these observations could have been made without the bands, but having the gadgets track my sleep made me far more interested in my sleep and I now sleep better because of them," a reviewer wrote in the Guardian last year.

Not so for me. I stopped wearing the device after about a month. Amidst constant feelings of not sleeping well enough, along with incessant researching about how I thought my resting heart rate was always too high, I decided fitness trackers were not yet at the stage where they can be both unobtrusive and beneficial. I'm not sure today's fitness trackers actually have the capability to tell me if anything's wrong with my body; it felt more like the Fitbit was sending me on a fitness goose chase. In the end, it wasn't really telling me anything I didn't know.

The night I took the Fitbit off, I slept like a lamb.

You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.