Don't snooze on Fitbit's new sleep schedule feature

Fitbit's mobile apps just got a new feature that's designed to help users improve their sleep habits. It's simple to set up and adjust, and it could lead to healthier living.

Man trying to sleep in the middle of the night

(Editor's note: This post has been updated to correct an error related to Fitbit Flex's auto sleep-tracking feature. The change is marked in bold.)

Most of us got the memo about sitting being the new smoking, but another health memo is making the rounds: Sleeping poorly is the new sitting.

OK, I just made that up, but plenty of research suggests most of us don't get enough sleep. Average sleep quality is often only "fair" or "poor." And fewer than seven hours of sleep each night, combined with poor sleep habits, lead to health risks, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Can mobile apps and activity trackers help? Sure, but there's only so much any gadget can do to make you go to sleep when you should and then stay asleep. Fitbit, however, is giving it a try. The fitness device company just released an upgrade to its mobile app with a new "sleep schedule" feature designed to help improve the regularity of users' sleep patterns, which experts say can provide health benefits.

Fitbit suggests sleep and wake times

The Fitbit app suggests ideal sleep and wake times based on your history and the number of sleep hours you want, and you can easily accept or modify the suggested times.

fitbit sleep schedule

When you finish setting a sleep-and-wake schedule, the Fitbit app encourages you to set a silent alarm on your Fitbit device to ensure you wake at the ideal time. (Fitbit's entry-level Zip is its only device that doesn't support silent alarms.) You can customize the alarm to only wake you on weekdays, too.

The Fitbit app also sends push notifications to your mobile device, to let you know when it's time to hit the sack. However, sleep experts recommend putting smartphones and tablets away for at least 30 minutes before sleep, so you might not even see those push notifications. Thankfully, an easy fix exists. Instead of relying on smartphone alerts, you can add a silent alarm to your Fitbit wristband, to tell you when to head to bed.

Automatic sleep tracking and basic insights

Many (but not all) Fitbit devices automatically log sleep time. Fitbit's apps and website provide basic insights into sleep quality, such as how many times you wake up during the night; how many times you are restless; and how many total minutes you are awake or restless.

In my tests during the past few years, all of Fitbit's wristband trackers did a good job automatically logging sleep — except for Flex, which doesn't support the feature. The sleep data Fitbit provides isn't particularly detailed, but it's probably enough for most people.

If you seek tips on how to improve sleep, Jawbone's UP3 and UP4 ($130 and $150, respectively), are worth a look, and they both automatically track sleep. The Jawbone app also provides data on how much time you spend in REM sleep; how long you are in light sleep; and how long it takes you to fall asleep.

Some other dedicated sleep trackers provide similar details, but Beddit ($149) is the only one I recommend, and some of its sleep improvement recommendations, such as "Choose a mattress that supports your body," are so obvious they're mostly useless.  

If you want to learn how to get better sleep and improve your overall health, Fitbit's new sleep schedule feature is another good reason to continuing using — or consider buying — one of its wearables.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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