Sleep is about more than just getting beauty rest. It is actually a vital component of our overall health. In trying to live healthier lifestyles, many people have turned to using devices that track our physical activity, like a FitBit or Apple Watch.

13WMAZ’s Karli Barnett set out to find how accurate these tools really are when it comes to showing people their sleeping habits.

Pamela Hester, Media Specialist at Kay Road Elementary, busily places books out on the tables and finishes the displays for the students’ upcoming book sale.

For the last four years, she says a FitBit has been her accessory of choice.

“It keeps you moving!” she says.

As someone with an active lifestyle, Hester not only uses the device to track her 10,000 steps goal, she also uses it to record and analyze her hours of sleep.

“If I go to sleep and it's not on, I will get up and put it on,” Hester laughs. “Because I want to see how much sleep I got.”

Each morning, she looks at a summary displayed on the connecting FitBit app on her phone. In her case, Hester says she averages five or six hours per night.

“One benefit of the FitBit device is an increased awareness of sleep quality,” says Dr. Mark Hendricks with Central Georgia Pulmonary Associates.

He says the good thing about the devices is they encourage people to make sleep a priority in living a healthy lifestyle, since a lack of sleep can lead to unhealthy consequences.

Those include weight gain, obesity, depression, and cardiovascular disease.

There are different stages of sleep, which, Dr. Hendricks says, are all important:

  • REM sleep is the time in the night when people dream.
  • Deep sleep is what makes people wake up feeling refreshed.
  • Light sleep is the shallowest level, but also makes up the majority of the night.

Karli showed Dr. Hendricks a typical night of sleep based on what her FitBit says.

An example of one night of sleep recorded on FitBit

The snapshot shows a total of about six hours.

Her REM Sleep was a little more than an hour, making up about 16 percent of the night.

Dr. Hendricks says, ideally, it would be a little higher than that for a good night’s rest.

Deep sleep was also about an hour for about 15 percent of the night. Hendricks says, since it falls between 15 and 20 percent of the night, that is in the normal range.

Light Sleep was just about four hours, making up more than half the night. Hendricks says that was normal, as well. However, he noted a total closer to seven hours of sleep is ideal.

The FitBit shows users those stages of sleep on the app when they wake up in the morning, but when it comes to their accuracy, Dr. Hendricks questions the quality of the findings.

As he explains, fitness trackers create those sleep summaries based on heart rate.

“I really question the effectiveness of that," he says. "Sleep stages are recorded based on brain wave activity, not on movement.”

Therefore, the fitness trackers are good for just an overall picture, but still need to be taken with a grain of salt.

Just because someone is laying in bed not moving, for example, does not mean they are asleep as a FitBit may record. At the same time, just because a person moves around in the night, does not necessarily mean they are awake.

“If they are having a sleep issue, you can't diagnose that on a FitBit,” Hendricks concludes.

People like Pamela Hester, however, say wearing the tracker has at least made her start to think about her sleep, just as much as her steps. Even though, she admits it can be tough to change night time habits.

“I don't know how I can change the pattern,” she says, “But it's very informational to see what I do in my sleep.”

In order to get a better night's sleep, Hendricks says to practice good sleep hygiene.

He says that means getting at least seven hours a sleep each night and trying to wake up and fall asleep at the same time every night.

If you have concerns about patterns in your sleep, like waking up frequently or restlessness, those could be indicators of a sleep disorder, which can only be diagnosed with a sleep study.