Does using an activity tracker for sleep have a role?

Dr Damon Ashworth (Clinical Psychologist) and Dr David Cunnington (Sleep Physician) discuss the use of an activity tracker during sleep and how it may help you gain insights  that can help your sleep.

Audio Timeline:

  • 00:00 – 01:14 What’s the role of activity trackers in monitoring sleep?
  • 00:58 – 02:01 Even though they’re not perfect, can they be helpful?
  • 02:01 – 02:43 What information about sleep can you get out of activity trackers?
  • 02:43- 04:02 Does measuring sleep help with being engaged in improving sleep?
  • 04:02 – 05:28 What insights can be gained by measuring sleep?
  • 05:28 – 06:18 Switching off before bed has an important role


Dr Damon Ashworth

Dr Damon Ashworth

Dr Damon Ashworth is a registered Clinical Psychologist with an interest in helping clients gain a greater understanding of their sleep difficulties and up-skilling them in strategies to improve their sleep. Although most of Damon’s work involves cognitive behavioural therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Damon also uses a range of other approaches when needed. Damon sees clients at Victorian Counselling and Psychological Services in Mill Park and Melbourne CBD locations and also consults at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre.


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David Cunnington: With changes in technology, we can now have activity trackers and things we can wear that measure sleep. Damon, what do you think their role is in helping people in terms of managing their sleep?

Damon Ashworth: I think having an awareness of how our sleep is as a baseline is very important to then know how we can improve it going forward. So I think if we can use a device that can track it for us and not just how we perceive it to be, then it’s more information that we can use to say what is sleep like and how can it be improved going forward.

David Cunnington: I agree with that. I do see a lot of people who get that misperception and there is a bit of a confusion about, “Am I really sleeping?” and trying to get some measurement. It’s often helpful working with them.

One of the criticisms of these devices is they’re not 100 percent accurate. Does that mean we should ignore them altogether?

Damon Ashworth: I definitely don’t think we should ignore them, no. I think any information that we can use that feels internally consistent to us is important. So if you’re using a device and you have a really good – what feels like a good night’s sleep and it shows – it as having a decent sleep, then that’s great and then if you have a device and it – you feel like you’ve had a bad night’s sleep and it shows on the data that there’s a bad night’s sleep, that’s good as well.

Where it could be unhelpful is if night after night you feel like, oh, I’ve had a good sleep and it doesn’t match up. Then it’s hard to know if it’s going to be useful.

But if it seems like it’s fairly consistent between what feels like it and what it shows, then we can then say, “How can we improve it going forward?” and you can try something. If it works, then that can back it up and strengthen that.

David Cunnington: What sort of information about sleep can you get out of these activity trackers?

Damon Ashworth: It can give a fair bit of information. So it will say the time that you’ve gone to bed. It can show you how long it takes for you to fall asleep and it can show you how long you’ve been asleep for during the night and if you’ve woken up during that, so a total sleep time as well.

The device that I used was called the Jawbone and with the more recent models of that, they’ve also put in sleep depth perception there. So, it will tell you how much sound sleep you’ve had or how much light sleep you’ve had during the night.

It gives quite a lot of useful information that we can then use to manipulate variables and try to improve sleep.

David Cunnington: If we have people measuring their sleep in this sort of way, have you found it helps them engage better with therapy?

Damon Ashworth: Definitely. I think feedback is crucial to being able to know if you’re on the right track or to keep you going. So if they’re trying something and then the data shows that their sleep is improving, then that’s only going to keep them more engaged because they’re going to be like, “Great. Now I don’t have to wait a few weeks to know if I’m on the right track here. I can see it night after night.”

The more that they can see that, the more that they can feel that, the more they’re going to keep trying to do the right things going forward.

David Cunnington: I’ve certainly found with some people too, it helps alleviate some of that catastrophising about sleep. If people can reflect and say, “Yeah, you know what? I had a bad night last night. But on trend, I’m going OK across this week and across this month.” So people can find that helpful.

Damon Ashworth: I think that we do have that bias sometimes to really just look at the negatives and to not say the positives. So if you have that one night where it is only three hours and you might be like, “Oh! All of this work that I’ve put in so far has been for nothing.

But if you can then say across the week that, “Oh, my total sleep time has improved by say half an hour or an hour,” then that one night doesn’t seem so bad. So yeah, I think it’s helpful to look at the longer picture and that’s where those devices can be really helpful.

David Cunnington: I’m a bit of a geek about sleep and tech. I love a gadget. I’ve been using a Jawbone device as well for a while and I think it provides lots of insights and interesting information. Now I know you’ve been using one too. So what have you found or what insights have you gained for doing that?

Damon Ashworth: I’ve gained a few insights. The main one for me was I don’t think that I need eight hours of sleep. So I know sometimes the media will say, “Oh, we all need eight hours.” But what’s much more important is finding what seems to be the right amount for you. I know that if I sleep somewhere between say 6 hours and 50 minutes on average and 7 hours and 10 minutes on average, then I’m feeling pretty good during the day. I’m feeling energetic and my mood is OK. If it drops much below that 6 hours and 50, then I’m not feeling quite as good. If I’m in bed for much longer than that, say eight hours each night, it actually reduces my sleep quality.

So being in bed for the right amount of time is what’s important instead of always just chasing after more and more sleep.

David Cunnington: That’s a really great insight and you’re right on that seven hours. Some of the research is suggesting that the seven hours is probably what we should be aiming for rather than eight hours. People working professionally and eight hours is often a bit unrealistic. I don’t see many people who are working professionally who would be sleeping for eight hours.

Any other comments you want to make about the activity trackers, Damon?

Damon Ashworth: I have found that – I’ve experimented with different things before going to bed at night and another thing that I’ve found that has been really helpful is making sure that I do things to switch off from my work day.

So if I can make a clear distinction between, all right, work is done for the day. Now, let’s see if I can do something relaxing. Then it does show in my sleep. If I’ve been up all night answering emails and then I try to go to sleep, I’m not going to be sleeping very well or not a deep quality. So mindfulness, relaxation, even just reading a nice book before bed does improve the quality of my sleep and that’s what the data shows on the app.

David Cunnington: That’s really helpful information. Thanks a lot Damon.

Damon Ashworth: Not a problem. Thank you.

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