How sleep became a competitive sport

sleep sport
'Sleep-tracking technology has turned that most private part of our lives, that mysterious zone beyond consciousness, into data,' writes Phil Hilton

Technology tells me other people are running faster, cycling further, own nicer houses and enjoy happier family holidays than I do and I can deal with that. However, when it tells me everyone else has enjoyed a better night’s sleep, I find this unbearably galling.

Sleep-tracking technology has turned that most private part of our lives, that mysterious zone beyond consciousness, into data. Where there’s data there’s competition, judgment and self-consciousness. Most sleep apps allow you to share data either publicly or with selected friends. More than 25 per cent of us measure our sleep according to a Huawei survey and 39 per cent of UK sleep tracker users only discovered their sleep issues once they’d started measuring themselves.

I am to sleep what Ray Winstone is to classical ballet. I wake up at 3.30am and with the clear vision of the insomniac, I realise I’m a hopeless loser with fading prospects, I don’t call my mum often enough and I’ll never be the rock guitarist I wanted to be. All this would have once been a blurry memory by the time my alarm goes off but, thanks to my Fitbit, I now know I was awake for 1hr 19min and only managed 59 minutes of precious deep sleep.

Phil struggles with sleep - and his Fitbit isn't necessarily helping
Phil struggles with sleep – he currently tracks it with his Fitbit

There is nothing more addictive and fascinating than data we gather about ourselves. I have been known to experiment with breathing exercises, calming to-do lists and specially dimmed lighting in the hope of improving my score. The growth of trackers has made sleep into another sporting event, another way to outdo others and demonstrate the shiny perfection of our lives.

Ian is a company director based in Hong Kong and wears both a Garmin and an Oura ring. “I have friends and do compare. Where I find this really useful is to say to friends: ‘I had the worst night ever, so much worse than you.’”

Walker battles with late-night waking episodes that often lead him to seek out his kitchen for an early-hours’ snack. Positive data shared by his sleep peer group can be a source of understandable frustration.

“I don’t really like it when someone tells me they’ve had a consistent eight hours and that aspect of their life is perfect. Do I really want to hear that?”

But overall, he feels the trackers are helping, partly as a reminder not to sabotage his own night. The Oura ring, for example, asks him about his coffee intake. “I don’t drink coffee within six hours of sleep – I have changed that. Also, if I do wake up to eat I try to have something that won’t keep me up. I’m getting better sleep with these trackers.”

Sleep data from an Oura ring

Oura Ring Hypnogram
Oura Ring Hypnogram

London-based media professional, Miranda, shares her often less-than-ideal sleep hours with a group of friends in a similar position. She says: “I’m in a Facebook messenger group with five friends, all of whom have stressful jobs, coupled with youngish families. It’s like a sleep self-help group. We’ll often check in on how we slept the night before. ‘I had five hours’. ‘So did I’! ‘You are so lucky. I woke up at 4am to go to the loo, and never went back to sleep again.’”

The competition in her group is to share suffering rather than success, “If, God forbid, you managed seven hours, you keep quiet as it feels like you’re letting the side down.”

There is a companionship to sharing with friends (and quietly outperforming them) but sleep experts do not recommend comparing scores or becoming excessively focused on “optimal” nights.

Katie Fischer has worked as a sleep therapist for more than 10 years. She says: “Orthosomnia is a relatively new condition where people obsessively seek ‘optimal’ sleep based on the data they get from their trackers. The trouble is there’s no perfect recipe for sleep. We might say it’s healthy to get 10-23 per cent of deep sleep, but sleep is very individual for all of us.”

Sleep tech: the Garmin and the Oura ring
Sleep tech: the Garmin (right) and the Oura ring (left)

Guidelines published by the Sleep Foundation say most of us need about seven hours, but Fischer says this varies hugely between individuals and the best measure is our sense of ourselves and how we feel throughout the day.

The risk with tracker data, a machine scoring our sleep “good” or “fair” and offering a breakdown of our duvet twists and turns, is that it can overwhelm our sense of our own wellbeing.

Fischer says: “It can also increase anxiety. If you’re not tracking your sleep, you base your sleep satisfaction on how you feel in the morning. How do you feel at 11.00am? Do you feel productive and that you have energy? When we look at data that says we’ve had a pretty rubbish night that can change our perception and we can feel low about that.”

Knowing that our friends, colleagues or (most frustratingly) our partners are outsleeping us only feeds into that general sense of defeat that comes with insomnia. Those of us who wake up in the early hours and sense our memory, our sanity and our ability to focus slipping away will not need Vicki in Logistics sending us her perfect Oura score the next day.

That said, my next night-time PB will, of course, be shared on all my social platforms as “inspiration”.

Do you track your sleep? Join the conversation in the comments

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