Sleep monitors explained: Rest longer and feel better

Sleep monitors explained: Rest longer and feel better

Are you normal? We interpret your sleep data so you can rest easier
Sleep monitors explained

Whether you're using a Jawbone UP3, Fitbit Blaze or a dedicated sleep monitor like Beddit, everyone's looking for a better night's shut eye.

But what does all the data mean? How much deep sleep do you need? And should your graph really look like that? Relax we've spoken to a sleep expert and got it all figured out.

How does it work?

Virtually every fitness tracker has the ability to map your shut-eye. They work by continuously monitoring your movements during sleep – known in professional sleep circles as actigraphy – and assessing sleep-wake cycles to see whether you're in deep or light sleep.

Sleep monitor - Get more deep sleep

This information is then presented to you the next morning; usually as a graph on your smartphone app. Most monitors will give you a calculation estimating how many hours of each type of sleep you've enjoyed and also how often you woke up.

Essential reading: The best sleep monitors and trackers

Alternative trackers such as the SleepRate also use your phone's microphone to record any loud noises during the night to help explain why you woke up while the Beddit Sleep Monitor uses a ballistocardiography (BCG) sensor tucked under the sheets to track sleep quality, duration, heart rate and respiration rate.

While not as accurate as professional sleep monitoring equipment, or lab tests, fitness bands can help paint a clearer picture of your own sleep cycles.

But what is good sleep?

While most of us still think of 'getting a solid nine hours' as having enough sleep it doesn't take into account the number of times you wake up and how much time is spent in each sleep cycle.

A good night's sleep consists of around five or six sleep cycles. One cycle consists of the following;

Stage 1 - The drowsy, relaxed state between being awake and nodding off.

Stage 2 - A deeper sleep where your body temperature cools a little and you become disengaged from your surroundings.

Stage 3 and 4 – This is 'deep sleep'; it is very hard to wake up from deep sleep because this is when there is the lowest amount of activity in your body. It is also the part of sleep where your body rebuilds itself, restores energy and hormones are released. This is the good stuff!

After deep sleep, we slip back into Stage 2 for a few minutes before entering 'dream sleep' – known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Each cycle lasts around 1.5 hours and we need to experience all four stages in order to wake up rested.

What does a good night's sleep look like?

Sadly there's no such thing as a perfect sleep chart, but if you sleep like a baby and wake up refreshed your chart will almost certainly show a steady wave of peaks and troughs.

According to sleep monitoring app SleepCycle a good night sleep will show sleep cycle peaks and troughs lasting for around 90 minutes. Notice that for every cycle the person goes into less deep sleep, this is typical for a normal sleep graph.

And while a few drinks can help you fall asleep faster you can see from this graph you'll probably have a lot less deep sleep, be restless and wake up earlier than usual.

Sleep monitor - Get more deep sleep

But as Professor Colin Espie, world sleep expert from the University of Oxford and Chief Clinical Officer at Sleepio explains:

"Each fitness monitor varies in the activities it monitors, the methods used to record them and the feedback given on the data collected. You may have to become your own detective to discover how the tracked data correlates with how you feel during the day and any factors that affect your sleep."

How much sleep is healthy?

Espie continued: "The number of hours' sleep you need is as individual as your shoe size. Don't assume you need the often-quoted 7-8 hours - in fact a shorter sleep may mean a better quality sleep."

The secret, according to the professor is "discovering the sleep that you personally need, and then making that your sleep pattern."

Essential reading: Our full Beddit Sleep Monitor review

To gauge just how much shut-eye you need it is worth analysing how you feel on different amounts of sleep. Do you wake up drowsy after nine hours and can't drag yourself out of bed, or are you more productive with an earlier start to the day?

As a general rule however new-born babies need roughly 12-18 hours, kids could do with 10-11 hours, teenagers (contrary to popular myth) only need around 8.5 hours while adults manage on 7-9 hours a day.

How can we get more deep sleep?

Sleep monitor - Get more deep sleep

According to Professor Espie "there are many small, practical steps you can take to make your day more sleep-friendly, from getting some exercise to cutting down on caffeine after lunch." But he recommends developing your own "personal wind-down routine."

Ideally this would consist of "an hour to an hour and a half before you go to bed when you don't do any work, avoid any 'stimulating' activity such as strenuous exercise, turn off any electronic devices and give yourself time to relax."

Easier said than done, especially if you like a night out and/or box set binges, but enjoying better sleep takes practice.

  • As unrealistic as it sounds try and get to bed by 9:30pm at least twice a week. It will help pay off your sleep debt and make work more productive.
  • Avoid the lie-in at weekends as your internal body clock (circadian rhythm) doesn't stop for Saturdays. Force yourself out of bed and you'll sleep better during the week.
  • Call last orders at the bar at least three hours before bed time to give your body time to process the alcohol. If your blood is clear of alcohol, you'll sleep more soundly.

How can you sleep more soundly?

"A reliable schedule is a critical part of being a healthy sleeper," suggests Professor Espie. "You should make the time to have a wind-down routine to help you relax before bed, and put your day to rest. Aim to stop your work/activity at least 60-90 minutes before bed, and keep your bedroom dark to help signal the body that it's time for bed."

"Give your mind something to focus on; one technique that's proven to work is using imagery. Imagine a scene that is calming and relaxing like walking through a favourite park or sailing in a gentle breeze - something that is engaging rather than exciting to the brain."

If you're unsure what to do with your sleep data apps such as Sleepio syncs with data from devices such as the Jawbone UP to help build a weekly plan – using CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) techniques – to help train your mind and body into sleeping better.

How can you fall asleep faster?

Worrying about not sleeping, the to-do list waiting at work or the state of your bank balance will keep even the heaviest of sleepers awake at night, but how can you get to sleep quicker? Follow these tips for a better night's kip:

  • Bedtime routines aren't just for toddlers; a relaxing bath or listening to soft music can help you prepare for sleep.
  • Turn down the thermostat as it is easier to sleep soundly in a cooler room.
  • The more you exercise, the more likely you are to improve your sleeping patterns.
  • Eat pumpkin seeds; they contain high amounts of zinc, which can help the brain convert tryptophan into serotonin which helps you sleep easier.
  • Don't drink caffeine after lunch and go easy on the alcohol.
  • Turn off your tablets as light from gadgets can inhibit and delay the production of melatonin, making it more difficult to get to sleep.

Be sure to check out our best sleep trackers and leave your own experiences in the comments.

15 Comments

  • SadDay4Jrnlism says:

    I'm not sure if I've just read an serious attempt at journalism or the first draft of a high school freshman's composition paper. I came here looking for reviews of sleep monitoring devices, but I leave in disappointment. It's clearly obvious no one proofread this before posting and the grammatical errors are just too distracting. The content of this article/blog post/term paper/whatever barely speaks to the title for which it was written. Unfortunately it's less about explaining sleep monitors and more about explaining why I don't need them. Who needs expensive devices or apps with their pretty graphs when all I need to do is make a few lifestyle changes and record how I feel the next day? Sounds like what I really need is a journaling app. Hell, I could even do that with pen and paper. 

    By the way, there's no need to introduce the same guy twice in back to back paragraphs, especially when he's the only person quoted throughout this whole mess. Spend less time looking up fancy words in your thesaurus and focus on creating better quality content. This isn't the damn New Yorker. 

    • j.stables says:

      Just because you don't understand the words doesn't mean they're grammatically incorrect. 

      If you wanted sleep monitor reviews then try the following: http://lmgtfy.com/?q=sleep+monitor+reviews

    • Lemonjell says:

      Ouch, someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed...probably should have taken the advice in this article into account...

      • Invocation says:

        There are grammatical errors though, he is right. places where I had to read sentances several times to figure out there were missing words or periods.

        • Lady_Astarte says:

          You had to read WHAT several times??!

    • BobH says:

      get a proper job and work in the day, not spending all of your time on the Internet (11.13). Then you would understand what the writer has written. Probably a lot of the mistakes are with the automatic spelling correction. If only you and others would read what you have written after there would be less mistakes in the modern world.

      A serious not an serious.

      Sleep monitors explained not reviewed.

      You obviously have a reading problem.

      From a retired 73 year old man.

    • Rugito says:

      Wow gramma police... If you could comprehend the sentences then clearly it is not worth mentioning. Also how did you expect to change your sleep without lifestyle changes? Clearly the apps are meant for monitoring your progress. At least this blog puts out valuable content, all you have done is moan.

    • Sp7 says:

      I found exactly what I was searching for in this article. SadDay4Jrnlism get a life you troll. Know what you're searching for before you start bashing people. If you want a sleep monitor review the search 'Sleep Monitor Review.' This is clearly titled 'Sleep Monitors Explained' you moron. 

      Sure it could've been written better, but if you read above the level of an average 5th-grader you don't have to examine every single word to decipher the meaning. The fact that you took time to respond to this in the manner in which you did, makes me think you have some deep rooted personal issues, as well as too much time on your hands. Grow up and stop being a troll. 

    • Larien says:

      Dear "SadDay"

      It truly is a sad day to find your response to this article so full of anger and judgment.  What you need you won't find in any sleep monitor, although a good night's sleep is as good a place as any to start.  I enjoyed this article. It generally answered my questions concerning  how my monitor records and displays information as well as some general tips for improving my sleep habits. Personally, I can't imagine living day after day with the anger you carry. 

  • Rugito says:

    Wow gramma police... If you could comprehend the sentences then clearly it is not worth mentioning. Also how did you expect to change your sleep without lifestyle changes? Clearly the apps are meant for monitoring your progress. At least this person puts out valuable content, all you have done is moan.

  • LittleTee says:

    Thank you. A really interesting article. :-) 

  • Zenrider says:

    Very helpful article. I will experiment with the recommendations. It is the message that is being sought, for which I am very grateful. 

  • Radiatehope says:

    Thank you for this informative article. I found exactly what I was looking for. 

    I recently got a Garmin vivoactive, before that I've never monitored my sleep. I like seeing the graphs, data is important. I think I agree with you though, how I feel after I wake up.

    Thanks again!

  • Larien says:

    Dear Sad Day,

    It is a sad day to find your comments so full of anger and judgment. What you need you will not find in any sleep monitor although a good night's sleep is as good a place as any to start. I enjoyed the article. It generally answered my questions which is what I was looking for. I cannot imagine living day after day with the anger you carry.

  • Falk3 says:

    Just acquired the Ôura ring, which I have read provides the most accurate sleep measurement of the wearables today.  The app is detailed but easy to understand.  Overtime, the ring "learns" about you and makes recommendations for recovery and performance.  Very cool!

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