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Can sleep tracking in iOS 14 / watchOS 7 help you sleep better?



Do you get enough sleep? Too many people do not. The US Centers for Disease Control suggests that it affects 35% of American adults, and another 2018 survey points the figure at 51%. Sleep experts say that the vast majority of adults need 7-8 hours of sleep per night for optimal health and well-being.

The numbers are even worse for high school students. Young people need 8-10 hours, but almost 69% are not able to get that much, according to CDC’s data. Unfortunately, teens also have crooked biological clocks that encourage them to stay up late and sleep late, which almost guarantees conflict with both the healthiest and with what society expects.

Of course, there are many clinical sleep disorders, ranging from sleep apnea to restless legs syndrome, but for many people, sleep problems are largely a condition of modern life. Many of us blur the lines between work and homework, spend too much time staring at brightly lit screens that can block the sleep hormone melatonin, and forcibly check stressful social media and news sites before bed.

In an effort to solve these problems, many companies have developed sleep tracking technologies and gizmos. Apple jumped on the bandwagon with iOS 1

4 and watchOS 7. I have tested Apple’s sleep tracking with the iPhone 11 Pro and Apple Watch Series 5 since it came out and have come to some conclusions.

How to sleep better

First, will sleep tracking technology improve your sleep? On its own, no. Sleep experts know how to help you sleep better, and their advice is not rocket science:

  • Avoid large meals late at night, especially with spicy foods or plenty of fluids.
  • Avoid nicotine, caffeine and alcohol, especially late in the day.
  • If you take a nap, do not take one within six hours of bedtime.
  • Relax for at least 30 minutes before going to bed, preferably with a regular routine.
  • Avoid using digital devices in bed, especially for brain-stimulating activities.
  • Wear comfortable clothes, dim the lights, and make sure the bedroom has a cool and comfortable temperature.
  • Make sure your bedroom is dark and quiet.
  • Exercise regularly, but not just before bedtime. Better sleep is just one of the many benefits of exercise.
  • Follow a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends.

While this may just be something that works for us, Tonya and I – almost every night for the past 16 years – have listened to 15 minutes of a non-fiction audiobook or iTunes U talk to help us fall asleep (see “iPods Defeat insomnia, ”February 28, 2005) It works incredibly well to shut the voices in our heads that otherwise make us spin on the big project in the works, what happens tomorrow, how to deal with some family situation, or what I can not recommend this approach highly enough.If you are looking for a title to start, we found Bill Bryson A short story about almost everything to be the perfect combination of fascinating and fun, but not convincing. Today we get all our audiobooks from the New York Public Library via Libby (see “Skip the Library Trip, Borrow Ebooks and More at Home”, September 14, 2020).

If, after following all the advice, you have trouble sleeping, you can keep a sleep diary to identify trends or lifestyle choices that may be causing problems. This is where sleep tracking technology can play a role. For each day, a sleep diary requires you to record when you went to bed at night, when you got out of bed in the morning, and how many times you woke up at night and for how long. Most sleep trackers can answer these questions automatically by detecting motion, sometimes in combination with other biometric measurements. Sleep diaries also ask many other questions, such as what you ate and when you ate it, how many caffeinated drinks you had and when and so on. It is up to you to mount these answers, although there are apps that will help you do so.

For those who know what to do to sleep better, but have trouble making it happen, sleep tracking technology can also help you maintain a regular sleep schedule and unwind properly before going to sleep.

Apple’s Sleep Tracking Technology

For some time now, iOS has had a bedtime feature built into the Clock app. It lets you set a time you want to go to bed and a time you want to get up, and tracks sleep only until the time you subtract the time if you used the iPhone in bed at night or added to it if you delayed the Wake alarm. Bedtime is now history, and Apple has moved its new sleep tracking features to the Health app, with Apple Watch-specific settings in the Watch app.

Setting up sleep tracking for the first time is more involved than many other Apple features, with a nine-screen assistant that guides you through setting up a sleep plan with a downsizing period and enables connection to an Apple Watch. Fortunately, it largely explains itself.

You will also take a quick trip to Watch> My Watch> Sleep, where you can configure some additional settings. I’m not quite sure why you would turn off any of these options, if you plan to use the Apple Watch for sleep tracking. In particular, charging reminders are important to ensure that the Apple Watch does not run out of power at an inappropriate time.

When it’s time for bed, the iPhone will alert you at the time you set for a pull-down, at least in theory. I’m not quite sure it’s happening on a reliable basis, but now that I think about it, my reminder to have sat down may have been set to trigger after my do not disturb schedule started. As far as I can tell, there is no automatic way to set an alarm to tell you when to stop turning off and actually go to sleep, but you can easily set a wake alarm to go on at the time your schedule specifies for to wake up.

When done, the iPhone screen displays a gray sleep screen (left, below). To use iPhone, first tap Reject and then unlock it normally. If you have a do not disturb schedule set to eliminate interference, it will also take over from the standard lock screen (right below), as you can see when I checked it in the middle of the night.

The Apple Watch also adjusts its normal display behavior during your sleep schedule. It’s worth noting that this alternative interface and sleep tracking collection works even if you forget to unlock your Apple Watch that you just put on your wrist after charging before going to sleep. (If you do not use the watch completely, it seems that Health records your “in bed” time that begins when you stop using the iPhone and ends when your sleep schedule will wake you up. It may not be accurate, but it is at least a guess in the right direction.)

The Apple Watch screen is completely off by default, which works wonders for battery life and prevents foreign light from interfering with your sleep. If you wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, you do not have to worry about the screen lighting up, and to see the time, click on the screen. A little pressure will not necessarily do that, which makes sense since you do not want it to come inadvertently. You can do nothing else on the watch without unlocking it, which requires turning the Digital Crown. In the morning when your sleep schedule is over, the Apple Watch wishes you a good morning, shows the date and time and provides both a battery level and a weather forecast. It is well done.

Apple Watch sleep tracking screen
This was an organic mid-wake; I’m not so involved in my work that I intentionally woke up to take a screenshot.

Then you just sleep, as usual. I have Nylon Sport Loop straps for the Apple Watch, which is almost completely soft, with hard plastic only on the end of the strap. I have found it sufficiently comfortable to sleep in, which can be a problem with stiffer straps, especially those made of metal.

In the morning you can see how you did it in the Health app. (The easiest way to do this is to tap Edit in the summary screen and tap the star next to Sleep mode so that it appears alphabetically in the summary screen – watch our quick video for a demo.)

The sleep summary shows how long you spent in bed and how long you slept, and it marks when your sleep is interrupted enough for you to get up (the small white lines in the blue-green bars below). By default, you see the week view, which you can swipe to scroll back in time, and tapping a day’s line shows the exact times. Pressing the M button switches to month view for a broader perspective. As you can see, we have decided to go to bed and get up a little earlier in the last few days. Tapping Show more sleep data basically gives you the same information with a slightly different presentation.

For more data, scroll down the timetables to Highlights and tap Show All. There you can see your heart rate measurements for the night and some simple analyzes of your sleep patterns.

Scrolling down past Highlights on the sleep overview screen reveals a couple of articles on why sleep is important and how to get a good night’s sleep. They seem completely sensible.

What does it all mean?

We are drowning in data, and tracking sleep will only add more. Data for the sake of data is worthless; it is only worth recording and saving it if it can with advantage inform about future actions. That’s my disagreement with Apple’s sleep tracking features. At least as far as I can see, all that tells me what I already knew is that I have decent sleep habits.

Unfortunately, I also know that – to some extent – the data is incorrect. It’s unusual that I do not have to go to the bathroom once a night, but if you look back at my graphs, you can see that there was no interruption in three of the seven nights. Worse, there have been several nights when I could not sleep again after getting up, and instead read several chapters in a book in Libby on my iPhone. Apple’s sleep tracking code did not even notice it, even though the iPhone itself was in use, and recorded those hours as sleep time. (Even the old bedtime function could figure it out.) And there have been several mornings when I have been awake in bed in the morning and talked to Tonya, all while still gathering extra minutes of sleep. So you have to take it all with a grain of salt and pay more attention to trends than to the specific numbers.

To see if another app can provide more insight, I downloaded SleepWatch, which relies on the same data from the Apple Watch. It has one more detailed dashboard that apparently distinguishes between interrupted, light and restful sleep, and which provides several calculations such as dormant heart rate decrease and average variation in sleep heart rate.

You can tap on any of these tiles to learn more, and SleepWatch explains more about the calculation, why it’s worth tracking, and how you can improve it. Once again, the only problem is that the only way to improve these calculations is to follow the advice earlier in the article. Get more exercise, eat right, avoid alcohol, caffeine and nicotine, and so on.

Finally, while I certainly do not want to minimize the problems someone can sleep and the benefits this technology can bring to a sufferer, I also do not think you should put hope on sleep tracking technology that makes a big difference on its own.

At best, it can help provide data that you can combine with further introspection to identify and change the known lifestyle factors that inhibit sleep. In the worst case, it can lead to additional stress about aspects of your body that you have little direct control over, such as heart rate variability. You do not want sleep tracking technology to keep you awake at night.

Personally, I go back to computer-free sleep. All the technology I need at night is 15 minutes with an audiobook when I fall asleep and the occasional hour of reading aloud to silence the sounds in my head.


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