How wearable technology truly changed my life
Can wearable technology really change your life, or is it just a passing fad? In my case the last few days have been a revelation, and I’ve got a smart wristband to thank for providing an early warning of potentially major health issues.
It all started when I bought a smart wristband last year – first a Jawbone UP and then a Fitbit Flex. As a desk jockey, the idea of tracking my movement, or rather the general lack of movement during the working day was appealing, although I very quickly tired of the idea of total immersion into the principles of the quantifiable self: This is hard work and involves tracking everything you eat and drink (some people also even measure their output), and checking your weight on a daily basis.
Wake Up You Sleepy Head
What turned out to be the life changer for me was actually a feature that I’d at first ignored: Sleep tracking. During the first days of having a smart wristband, I’d taken it off to charge up overnight, or simply removed it, due to being skeptical as to what a glorified pedometer could tell me about my sleep patterns.
But of course, just as I diligently logged everything I ate and drank for a few days, I also had to test the Jawbone UP’s sleep tracking, and after a few nights of “just trying it”, found that the tracker data had a surprise in store: although I was technically asleep, or at least in an unconscious state, this sleep was very restless. What started the alarm bells ringing was that this was not only for a few minutes here and there, but as a repeated pattern through the night – almost each and every night.
Typically, my smart wristband reported, I’d be asleep for less than an hour before long periods of nocturnal movement. Sometimes these could go on for hours on end, before I’d finally settle back into deep sleep.
That’s when, for me, sleep tracking easily surpassed daily steps as the smart wristband’s “killer app”: The stats became so compelling that I’d have to sync the wristband with my smartphone before being able to answer the simple question “how did you sleep”, as I blogged last fall.
It’s not that I have become dependent on technology for information, but that I’d discovered how tech could give me a very different view of something as basic as sleeping: I’d go to bed, sleep, then get up, refreshed.
It Ain’t Necessarily So
My personal sleep stats from smart wristbands made me question this basic assumption. The first step to address this was to buy a new mattress, which helped: My longest uninterrupted periods of sleep almost doubled to around three hours. Then my wife started using a tracker, too, and her phenomenal ability to pack in deep sleep (even managing to avoid being disturbed by my chainsaw-like snoring) was even recognized by Jawbone’s UP as being in the “top 5% of sleepers”, while her Fitbit Flex reports often show a continuous deep blue line. (In fact this is often such an unbroken sleep pattern that we have suspected her device may be faulty, or that it might have fallen off in the night.)
The kicker was that comparing our sleep stats led me to a major “a ha” moment: For years I’d simply known that I needed more sleep than my wife, but we’d just taken this at face value. Data from my Fitbit Flex tracker showed that I did indeed need more sleep, because I simply wasn’t getting enough deep sleep during a normal night.
I’d also started waking up with headaches and feeling perma-tired, to the point where some days I’d need to battle through with a combination of concentration, will power and caffeine. However, as my sleep patterns clearly indicated, I had “actionable analytics”: In other words, it was time to see my doctor.
I’m Only Sleeping
Falling asleep isn’t usually a problem, so it felt somewhat silly telling my doctor that despite sometimes getting nine hours a night in bed, I wasn’t getting enough sleep. My Fitbit data helped: even in a high-tech country like Germany, I’ve discovered that almost all the medics have never seen or heard of a smart wristband – although my doctor showed enormous interest in my Fitbit’s sleep stats.
Before consulting a medic, I’d tried a number of solutions – avoiding late-night alcohol, no coffee after 4pm, even turning down the brightness of computer displays at night-time. However, none of these made a noticeable difference over a sustained period of a few weeks or more.
After some basic tests (lung capacity, cholesterol levels, blood pressure), I was sent home with a DIY sleep tracking kit: a clunky beige box with a set of sensors that I was to adhere to various parts of my body before going to sleep. It’s easier said than done to fall asleep when you’re wired up with EKG pads, a fingertip sensor that tracks pulse and blood oxygen levels, and a nasal air pressure tracker. Following much grumbling about fitting it all, I finally drifted off to sleep and let the box track my progress.
Breathe (In The Air)
After returning the box to the doc the following morning, the results were a revelation: not only in confirming that I had a problem, but also in just how many sources of data the thing had tapped into. There was a glorious, full-length MP3 soundtrack of my nocturnal hours, a full breakdown of my pulse, and a correlation between dips in my blood oxygen and periods when I stopped breathing: for up to a minute at a time. Despite having the appearance of an old BBC Acorn computer, the device was pretty impressive, since it also tracked how much time I spent in different sleeping positions, body temperature and all movements on three different axis.
The doctor immediately referred me to a sleep clinic, for further investigation into a condition called sleep apnea. Since my hourly average number of “apnea” per hour was well above the threshold. This is a medical situation that occurs when the muscles at the back of your throat relax, sag and obstruct your airway, during sleep. The muscles themselves are damaged over time by the vibrations caused by snoring. If there’s an airway obstruction, then your body starts convulsing while the blood oxygen level drops (which also leads to morning headaches). After a while, and this can be two minutes or even longer, an oxygen-starved body instinctively starts waking up, you move, take a deep breath, and oxygen levels go up. Then it happens again. In my case, after a particular one-minute apnea, I took just three breaths before my breathing stopped again … and this pattern went on for more than an hour.
In short, you’re sleeping (not driving) with the brakes on. If it’s not addressed, then sleep apnea can lead to a hugely increased risk of heart disease, and can explain cholesterol build-ups and higher blood pressure: all because you’re not getting enough decent sleep. If you’re loath to buy a smart wristband which tracks sleep, there are also smartphone apps, although I’d recommend putting the phone on flight mode before tucking it under your pillow.