Technology for better sleep, better life


While we’ve been talking mostly about “active” fitness technology in our series of stories on health tech, I don’t think many would argue about the value of good sleep in overall health, so this month, I’d like to look a little at some high-tech options that could help you get a little more quality in your Z’s.

Recent studies indicate that people are not getting nearly enough sleep — six to eight hours is the minimum recommendation for most of us — and even that sleep isn’t as good as it should be.

My first thought on this subject is inevitably to recommend Select Comfort’s Sleep Number Bed. Yes, the one you see in the info-mercials all the time. I’m not a paid endorser, but the bed’s more than worth a recommendation, paid or otherwise, in my experience.

As someone who routinely woke up for years with a stiff back or sore neck or shoulders, I can say I haven’t had anything more than an occasional bit of stiffness from sleeping in an odd position since I bought mine about seven years ago.

The idea is so simple, I wonder that no one else came up with it beforehand. But, basically, the Sleep Number bed is a fully customizable bed that allows you to choose how firm or soft it is. The inner mattress inflates to match numbers ranging from 0 (flat) to 100 (full and firm) in intervals of five. I run between 45 and 65, depending on my mood, but I can’t say that any standard “medium” mattress ever did the trick for me.

The best thing about this bed comes into play for those who share their beds with someone who has a dramatically different mattress preference. In queen or larger sizes, two controls mean he can sleep at 90 and she can rest in comfort at 30. Newer versions can enhance the bed’s ability not to get too hot or too cold for either sleeper.

And I have to say I was also sold on the portability factor, since the bed comes in two moderate-sized boxes and can break down to the same if you ever need to move it. The frame/box spring breaks down like Lincoln Logs, and the mattress deflates to the size of a folded comforter.

I’ve also heard great things about “memory foam” mattresses and the Tempur Pedic system that led the way in that arena. The idea behind the technology — which was originally developed by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) for astronauts — is that a mattress that conforms to your body shape will help you sleep more comfortably, with better support.

Suffice it to say that if you’re not sleeping comfortably, these are just a few of the bedding options that you might want to consider. Checking with your doctor for underlying physical conditions might also be a good step, because conditions such as sleep apnea and heavy snoring can not only cause major health issues from lack of sleep, they can potentially be fatal either of themselves or in causing accidents due to lack of quality sleep.

Light and sound make for better sleep, better waking

Other common sleep problems involve the inability to sleep through nighttime noise, which can be an issue whether you live next to a busy highway or have a family member who’s up late at night or early in the morning.

The ideal way to deal with that problem if you live at the beach might be to open a window – if you live in a beachfront house, that is. There’s a reason most modern “white noise” generators include a setting that simulates the crashing waves of the ocean. It sets a base level for noise that lulls the sleeping brain into ignoring most other sleep-interrupting sounds.

These days, “white noise” machines offer the ability to choose between the ocean, a waterfall, babbling brook, lake full of loons, tropical island with seagulls, or, for the new baby, the sounds of the womb. There are also systems now that can include a program of specially tailored sound waves that are designed to encourage relaxation, pure sleep or renewing rest in the brain itself.

I’ve had several generations of the Tranquil Moments devices from Brookstone, which do a great job of simulating relaxing environments like the beach, no matter how far inland you live. It’s also a treat to wake up with a gradually rising sound of the incoming tide, instead of a blaring electronic beeping or radio musical selections, so this pays off on the far side of the night as well.

Speaking of waking up well… The SleepTracker is a new watch-style device that claims to track your sleeping activity to pinpoint the precise period in your sleep cycle during which you can wake and feel fully rested and still make your morning meeting.

It tracks how you sleep from night to night and looks for cues as to when you hit that period of rest during which your brain is not actively dreaming nor falling back into restfulness, catching you at the peak when waking up will not jar your senses or leave you feeling tired but during a window when you need to wake to keep on your schedule.

The reviews I’ve heard of this $150 device, and its option-rich $180 version, have been pretty good so far. Good enough to be tempting when Uncle Sam returns that interest-free loan in the coming weeks. So if you always feel like your alarm clock should be thrown across the room in the morning, this might be something to look into.

Another option for those who hate waking to a jarring buzzer noise is the Zen Alarm Clock, which wakes you to a series of ever-increasing chimes. First, there’s one chime, then three and a half minutes later another, eventually striking every 5 seconds after 10 minutes, until it’s shut off. I imagine this must be like rising to the morning chime of bells in a Buddhist monastery.

An alternative alarm clock I have personal experience with is the Soleil Sun Alarm, which I purchased in its initial incarnation. The idea behind the clock is that the human body naturally rises and sleeps according to the hours the sun is above the horizon and casting its light on us.

With artificial light that enables late-night work and entertainment, the human body can lose its connection with the natural rhythms of the day and night, and you end up having to fight to go to sleep and then to wake up again in the morning.

Imagine instead that the sun tailored its schedule to you, slowly going down at 10 p.m. even in the winter and rising at 7:30 a.m. on the weekends. That’s what the Soleil Sun Alarm does, sitting on your nightstand. It just gradually brightens from nothing to full light over the course of a half-hour, waking you as the light gets to the brightness level that naturally stirs you from sleep, even if it’s pitch black outside or you have heavy curtains over your windows.

That’s a gentle waking, believe me! (But not for people who sleep through those jarring audible alarms…)

Brain training, fitness coaching goes mobile — and fun

In addition to these technologies that aim to help you sleep — and wake up — in better health, I have a few more additions to the health and fitness side of things this week, thanks to some information releases and personal experiences in the last month or two.

While I have mentioned the Nintendo Wii game console in past technology and health-tech columns — particularly with the planned release of the Wii Fit game and balance board peripheral now anticipated around June — the Wii’s elder (but still smaller) sibling, the Nintendo DS, has also been making a push into the field of fitness and health.

The most significant news on the DS fitness front is the upcoming summer release of My Fitness Coach, which Nintendo announced just a few weeks ago. My Fitness Coach expands on the “coach” type of use for the tiny portable gaming system that already has a big following in games for “brain training,” language learning and vision training, and takes it to a purely physical level.

My Fitness Coach aims to all but replace your personal trainer and dietician by providing an add-on pedometer that snaps into the port on the DS that accommodates Gameboy Advance game cartridges. You wear the little pedometer as you go through your day, just like any other pedometer, and then you connect it to the DS for analysis of your day’s physical activity.

The program then takes into account that activity, your food consumption and all the usual suspects to encourage you to live a healthier lifestyle, complete with checkpoints for all those steps you’re taking, which it’s now counting. Its cute stick-figure graphics take their cue from the existing — and highly popular — brain training games and provide a warm, non-intimidating, coaching atmosphere.

This is a great take on existing fitness and dietary advisor software offerings, especially in the ultra-portable format of the pedometer accessory and the tiny portable gaming device. It makes the DS not only an on-the-go fitness program but one that isn’t too technical or too complicated for those who avoid computers, and opens up a portable fitness routine for anyone who already has a DS.

That number is huge, with the DS eclipsing sales of 64 million units worldwide through December 2007 — more than 20 million in the Americas alone. Those sales have been built, as much as anything, on the pairing of the DS (and particularly its latest, lighter, smaller incarnation, the DS Lite) with the push for brain-training games and other senior-friendly software offerings.

First, it was Brain Age, which focuses on rapid-fire mathematical and memory challenges and was directly marketed to seniors — later, bundled with a red-and-black DS Lite — and those who can’t get enough of the number puzzle Sudoku, which is included on the Brain Age cartridge.

In the game, the disembodied animated head of Japanese brain-science expert Dr. Ryuta Kawashima leads players through training and testing, and offers tips on maintaining mental acuity, all based on the idea that exercising the mind regularly may be key to maintaining quality of life as we age and potentially ward off symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. It has been an unmitigated hit.

Since then have come host of imitators — many of which have proven as popular as Brain Age, such as Big Brain Academy, Ultimate Brain Games and sequel Brain Age 2. We also now have Left Brain Right Brain — a game that aims to make you enhance your ambidexterity by working with both the right and left hands.

There’s also My Word Coach, which works to improve your English vocabulary, as well as My French Coach and My Spanish Coach. And there’s Flash Focus, which works on improving visual acuity with visual exercises involving peripheral vision, hand-eye coordination and eye relaxation. That’s not to even mention many a puzzle and mystery game — such as the sublime Professor Layton and the Curious Village — that guarantees to put your brain cells to work when playing the DS.

As with the Wii, Nintendo’s got a great concept in the DS — making game playing so easy and natural, and so appealing to a broad range of people, that it’s hard to find a reason not to get one and at least a few games to go with it. Those aiming to improve their fitness — both physical and mental — now have even less of a reason to resist that $130 price tag.

And if there’s any question about the cross-generational appeal of the DS, I have a photograph of my 65-plus-year-old father and my 2.5-year-old son playing with a pair of the devices recently, side by side and both thoroughly engrossed.

Dad got the DS and Brain Age as a gift to help wile away some idle hours of his retirement years with mentally active games, while my son simply lays claim to my own DS every time he gets a chance, playing evil animator in a take-off on a classic Looney Tunes cartoon or practicing drawing and other basic skills in a game designed for kids 3 and up.

From the middle generation, I’m just looking forward to working my brain age level in Brain Age 2 down to something a little closer to my real age, and the Piano Player game makes it pretty fun for this out-of-practice pianist to do so.

If you’ve put off buying a DS even though this run of brain training and other “non-game” options has tempted you in the last couple of years, My Fitness Coach makes one more reason to give it a look. If you need another, the DS now comes in a chic blue-and-black version, which was all the encouragement I needed to finally snap one up. But it also comes in white, black, pink and red-and-black.