Do Sleep Tracking Gadgets Really Work?

Fitbit. Misfit. Fuelband. Nike+. Beddit. You’ve probably heard about the fitness trackers that are all the rage for health nuts. And many of them promise to be able to track your sleep. But can they actually monitor your sleep as well as they say they can? And more importantly, even if they do, can it help you sleep better? Getting a good night’s rest is one of the most important goals you can have in your life, so let’s take a look at how the sleep trackers stack up.

How Do They Work?

Most of the sleep/fitness trackers are worn on your wrist. A few, like Aura and Beddit, are designed to be put beneath your sheets. Either way, both are trying to measure your movements, basing their sleep data on how much you move around during the night. Some of the wrist trackers claim to be able to measure your pulse as well, but that might be a dubious claim. Let’s get to the results:

The Testers

Dr. Christopher Winter at Huffington Post tested out several wrist-mounted fitness trackers—he actually strapped 5 of them on at once. And one iPhone app—naturally, he used masking tape to stick his phone to his arm. Then, he entered a scientific sleep study that measured brain waves, muscle-tone, and eye-movement. Finally, he compared the scientific results with the fitness trackers’. In his results, the Fitbit Flex and the Jawbone Up had pretty scattered data, but the Basis Chrome ($199) managed to get results that were fairly close to the scientific ones.

Joanna Stern writing for the Wall Street Journal also found that the Basis watch produced mostly-accurate, if not perfect, data. Her best results came from the Polar H7 heart-rate monitor ($100), but she had to wet its electrodes and strap it to her chest each night—and do you really want to do that? Every single night?

Should I Buy A Sleep Tracker?

If you’re looking for features in a sleep tracker, Wellocracy has a great chart that breaks down most of the available options. But sleep experts like to point out that “sleep tracker” is kind of a misnomer. Meaning, they don’t directly track sleep. As Dr Irshaad Ebrahim from the London Sleep Centre told The Guardian, “They're not measuring sleep, simply motion – not muscle tone, brain waves, heart rate or eye movement. You cannot infer quality of sleep from motion and tell what is crucial REM [rapid eye movement] sleep and what is not.”

So are the sleep trackers really worth it? Dr. Christopher Winters, the brave guinea pig of 5 devices, says yes. But not necessarily for accuracy of data—instead, it’s all in your head: “The bottom line is that any device on your wrist that makes you think twice about staying up too late is a good thing.”