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How a sleep tracker may be messing up your sleep — and how to fix it

While using a device to track your sleep seems like it would lead to better rest, a sleep expert says the data may be misleading.
Cropped shot of a woman sitting on bed wearing a smart watch
Activity trackers, smartwatches and smartphone apps mostly track a person's sleep by recording how often people toss and turn in bed.Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

It’s time to kick your sleep tracker out of bed, according to one sleep expert. Devices that monitor our movements during the night can give people the wrong ideas about sleep.

“Sleep trackers are really looking at behaviors; they really don’t know whether you are asleep or not,” Dr. Jerald Simmons, founding director of Comprehensive Sleep Medicine Associates, a neurologist and sleep medicine expert. “These devices can be misleading.”

Activity trackers, smartwatches and smartphone apps mostly track a person’s sleep by recording how often people toss and turn in bed. The more movement, the less sleep a person receives, according this rationale. But that’s not the complete picture.

“A Fitbit, a smartwatch, are speculating on whether you are asleep or not based on the amount of movement,” Simmons said. “The question is — what is the significance of this movement?”

Some people might notice a lot of movement and fear they are getting poor sleep — often when they're not.

The bigger problem is that the devices don't notice real disturbances, such as breathing problems associated with sleep apnea, said Simmons. Roughly 18 million Americans have sleep apnea — and as many as 90 percent don't realize it. If the sleep tracker indicates a full night's rest and because it isn't detecting gasps or choking sounds, people may skip going to the doctor to get important screening for sleep apnea.

There are other reliable physical signs that indicate problems, including sleep apnea:

1. Daytime sleepiness

Feeling tired and run down during the day is the biggest sign that people aren’t getting enough sleep.

2. Excessive nighttime drooling

Too much saliva on the pillow isn’t just gross; it also indicates a person is struggling to breathe.

3. Morning headaches

Sometimes people clench their jaws throughout the night to keep their airways open to breathe better. Headaches can be a sign of obstructed airways.

“If you feel tired and fatigued … that should be an indicator that you need to check out your health,” Simmons said.

Smarter ways to use a sleep tracker

Smartwatches, fitness trackers and smartphone apps collect great data on many different types of behaviors — they give insight into a daily routine and whether lifestyle changes are needed to improve the ability to sleep.

Record sleep and wake times. Sleep research suggests going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day to regulate your internal body clock. A tracker is a perfect way to see how bedtimes vary.

Track eating and drinking habits. Trackers also provide info on eating, drinking and exercising habits that wreck sleep quality.

While many people know to skip caffeinated and alcoholic beverages before bed, they might not realize how close to bedtime they're enjoying them. A tracker can reveal this.

Exercise for sleep. Trackers are all about managing a fitness schedule. There's evidence that exercise produces a positive effect on sleep. However, it depends on when you exercise. Exercising within three or four hours of bedtime may keep you awake.