• Paul McGovern

The best health gadget you can buy helps you sleep and costs a tenner

My phone counts my steps. I've got a heart rate monitor, a sleep tracker and bathroom scales that connect to an app and show me a graph of how much weight I gained on holiday. Another app records when I exercise - if I do enough, my health insurer rewards me with a free coffee every week and a cinema ticket I always forget to use.

Blue sky with wisps of clouds

This is all amazing, and pointless. None of these things actually make a difference to what I do. The apps tell me what I've already done, and track what's already happened. In terms of making a real difference to my health, they just don't. Health tracking and health gadgets are just a bit of fun.

Getting healthier involves spending less time with your phone or iPad, not more. And any health gains you make from collecting reams of data are more than erased by the disastrous effect your phone has on your sleep.

Sleep is more important than you can imagine. It allows your muscles to repair, and your immune system help avoid you getting a cold. It's harder to lose weight if you're sleep deprived. If you have a vaccination and then have poor sleep, it takes longer for your body to develop immunity and for the vaccine to work. Sleep makes your mood better, your pain tolerance higher, your blood pressure go down, your intelligence go up and it makes you a nicer person to be around. It lets you remember things you learned - if you're studying for an exam you'll do better if you first plan for when you're going to sleep, stick to that, then fit your revision time in around that. Lack of sleep makes you cranky, boring, more likely to get sick and more likely to feel crap. Sometimes lack of sleep is caused by mental health problems and sometimes mental health problems affect sleep. Either way, not getting enough sleep, especially over the long term, is something to take seriously. 

So, what does your phone have to do with this? Well, everything about your phone is honed, crafted, iterated and developed to keep you hooked on it. When you're gawping at the screen, your blink rate goes down, you get a little rush of dopamine when you get a Facebook notification, you feel rage when someone talks about Brexit on Twitter. You feel like you've achieved something when you hit 10,000 steps, or meditated for 10 days in a row. The sound of silence or a break in buzzing is intolerable, and a notification - any notification, even from someone you hate at work - is better than that sense that your phone has nothing more to say to you.

During the day, you may as well be occupied with this if you have nothing much better to do. But at night, your phone is an anti-sleep truncheon, perfectly designed to batter your weary brain away from getting enough rest.

Eventually the weight of your eyelids becomes too burdensome and you drift off. But if your phone has helped you stay awake for an hour longer, and you're doing that every day, you're losing a night's sleep over the course of a week. People get used to being chronically tired to the extent that it feels normal - but it isn't. That much sleep lost over years is hugely taxing for body and mind.

Much has been made of blue light from phone screens, and perhaps this does make a difference. It seems far more likely to me though that the stimulant effect of a phone is more about what it does and how it engages you than the colour of the display. You need to get rid of it in the evening.

And I mean really get rid of it. Your phone should not enter your bedroom. Your charger should be in another room. Really, you want to put it down, switch it to silent, and not be engaging with it for an hour before bed. That may seem unrealistic, so if you just keep it out of the bedroom, you'll be doing better than most people.

Which brings me on to the best health gadget you can buy. The main objection to the phone/bedroom ban when I propose this to outraged patients in clinic is that they use their phone as an alarm clock. The thing that stopped you sleeping the night before is the thing that tears you out of the sleep you desperately need first thing in the morning. Before you've rubbed the blurriness from your eyes you've interacted with the phone to snooze the alarm, possibly seen that an email has come in, maybe seen a news alert. And... jackpot! An Instagram notification. Your cortisol level shoots up a bit, you start to engage with the phone properly. The cycle starts again.

Get an alarm clock. They cost a tenner. Get an alarm clock without Bluetooth, without an app, without a phone connection. If it has a radio, fine, but it can't do anything cool. It can't be anything you spend time looking at. It should be boring. It should be something you don't care for. It should be something you switch off and forget about. It should have no capability to entertain you before you go to sleep, and should occupy none of your thoughts once it's served its purpose and woken you up. That time away from your phone the night before will help your brain associate 'bed' more with sleep or sex and less with literally everything else in your life. You'll sleep better and get fewer colds. Your blood pressure will go down. You may even live longer.

An alarm clock is the best health gadget you could possibly buy. Your phone will be waiting for you in the next room when you wake up, charged and ready to go. Give yourself space from it and give yourself some space to sleep.

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