Last Updated on March 20, 2020
Track Your Sleep and Steps to Improve Your Health
The wave of wearables has promised to transform the way we think about how our bodies move through the world. They serve as a reality check for how much we’re eating, sleeping, and moving—and might even shake up our current habit if we let them.
Let’s face it: pedometers are nothing new. Even the now-ubiquitous “10,000 steps” rule has been around since the 1960s. But what is new is our ability to quantify things like sleep and heart rate without relying on large, expensive equipment. Smartphones, smartwatches, trackers and apps have all changed the game by increasing access to vital information about our vitals.
But beyond providing interesting tidbits for the data nuts among us, does tracking our sleep patterns and steps actually help us improve our quality of life?
The connection between sleep and exercise
In a report from the CDC, researchers called sleep problems a US public health epidemic. The report found that sleepy Americans are losing billions of dollars in productivity, that sleep deprivation is leading to fatal accidents, and that poor sleep even plays a role in health issues like sleep apnea and obesity.
The downsides to a lack of sleep don’t stop there. Being deprived of sleep in the long term can boost your risk for kidney disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and a host of other health issues. And if you’re working to build muscle, a lack of sleep can sabotage your efforts, as we produce most of our growth hormones when we sleep.
Yes, Americans are chronically deprived of sleep. No, we don’t prioritize sleep in our health routines. But what does that have to do with tracking our steps? More than you think. For one thing, there’s a definite link between the amount of energy we spend throughout the day and the quality of sleep we get later on. Psychology Today, for instance, found that exercising helped strengthen our bodies’ circadian rhythms—giving us energy during the day and promoting sleepiness at night.
That said, exercising more isn’t a quick fix to those sleepless nights. Participants found that it took roughly 16 weeks to reap the sleep benefits of a good, hard workout. But patience pays off, as does tracking your sleep and your steps.
Sleep and the “quantified self”
The rise in sleep and activity tracking comes from a phenomenon known as the “quantified self.” This term refers to people who use technology to gather data about themselves in order to improve in some way. The simplest example of this is tracking your steps, having the data reveal that you aren’t as active as you thought, and then moving more on a daily basis.
Tracking your sleep, on the other hand, could reveal a lot more than you think. Fitbit and a plethora of other sleep tracking apps can provide a wealth of information about your sleep schedule, especially when integrated with your exercise and other health data. Specialized sleep apps like Pillow will track your movement as you sleep to help you determine whether you really are a morning person or a night owl. The Awaken app incorporates your sleep habits into overall wellness recommendations. And Sleep Genius is used by NASA astronauts to get the optimal amount of rest.
And then there’s the integrated approach, which involves using your wearable to track sleep alongside your steps and beyond. Most of these fitness devices have a wearable component—either a band or a watch—as well as a complimentary application. The devices themselves don’t provide a ton of information about each workout beyond some data about your steps, your heart rate and miles logged. It’s the apps that work to fill in the blanks. Fitbit and Garmin apps, for example, provide a slew of data that takes into account your exercise intensity, behavior, sleep patterns and fitness goals.
That said, there is mixed data on whether fitness trackers actually help users get in shape. One study looked at two groups of participants, one with fitness trackers and one without. Both groups were placed on a low-calorie diet and were asked to work out on a regular basis. The findings revealed that the people who did not track their movements lost 13 pounds, as opposed to the 7.7 pound-average for the tracking group.
Turning data into results
Wearables have opened us up to a vast world of data, giving consumers access to revealing (and often real-time) insights. But the work doesn’t stop at self-diagnosis. What happens when you find out that your sleep style doesn’t align with your health’s best interests?
Once the novelty of the trackers wears off, it’s the changes we make to our habits that move the needle. Are you not making time for sleep? Or do you have trouble falling asleep due to your diet or lifestyle habits? If it’s falling asleep that’s your issue, try rubbing a bit of magnesium oil or lotion on your legs before you hit the hay. As one Men’s Fitness writer puts it, “Within 20 minutes, you’ll be ready to pass out.”