Importance of Getting Enough Sleep and Daily Activity Data to Assess Variability: Longitudinal Observational Study

JMIR Form Res. 2022 Feb 22;6(2):e31807. doi: 10.2196/31807.


Background: The gold standard measurement for recording sleep is polysomnography performed in a hospital environment for 1 night. This requires individuals to sleep with a device and several sensors attached to their face, scalp, and body, which is both cumbersome and expensive. Self-trackers, such as wearable sensors (eg, smartwatch) and nearable sensors (eg, sleep mattress), can measure a broad range of physiological parameters related to free-living sleep conditions; however, the optimal duration of such a self-tracker measurement is not known. For such free-living sleep studies with actigraphy, 3 to 14 days of data collection are typically used.

Objective: The primary goal of this study is to investigate if 3 to 14 days of sleep data collection is sufficient while using self-trackers. The secondary goal is to investigate whether there is a relationship among sleep quality, physical activity, and heart rate. Specifically, we study whether individuals who exhibit similar activity can be clustered together and to what extent the sleep patterns of individuals in relation to seasonality vary.

Methods: Data on sleep, physical activity, and heart rate were collected over 6 months from 54 individuals aged 52 to 86 years. The Withings Aura sleep mattress (nearable; Withings Inc) and Withings Steel HR smartwatch (wearable; Withings Inc) were used. At the individual level, we investigated the consistency of various physical activities and sleep metrics over different time spans to illustrate how sensor data from self-trackers can be used to illuminate trends. We used exploratory data analysis and unsupervised machine learning at both the cohort and individual levels.

Results: Significant variability in standard metrics of sleep quality was found between different periods throughout the study. We showed specifically that to obtain more robust individual assessments of sleep and physical activity patterns through self-trackers, an evaluation period of >3 to 14 days is necessary. In addition, we found seasonal patterns in sleep data related to the changing of the clock for daylight saving time.

Conclusions: We demonstrate that >2 months' worth of self-tracking data are needed to provide a representative summary of daily activity and sleep patterns. By doing so, we challenge the current standard of 3 to 14 days for sleep quality assessment and call for the rethinking of standards when collecting data for research purposes. Seasonal patterns and daylight saving time clock change are also important aspects that need to be taken into consideration when choosing a period for collecting data and designing studies on sleep. Furthermore, we suggest using self-trackers (wearable and nearable ones) to support longer-term evaluations of sleep and physical activity for research purposes and, possibly, clinical purposes in the future.

Keywords: Withings; digital health; establishing standards; internet of health care things; mHealth; nearable technology; seasonality; sleep; study duration; wearable technology.