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My Tech: Sleep Better, Play Better

The key to lowering your handicap might be a good night's rest

June 2012

Last year, researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine announced that members of the university's men's basketball team had improved their playing performance by sleeping more. The researchers found that the players, over two seasons, achieved impressive gains in running speed, free throws and 3-pointers by going to bed earlier or waking up later, and taking occasional naps. Cheri Mah, the lead researcher, told me that sleeping longer improved the players' "performance, mood and reaction time."

Mah's sample was small, but her results are consistent with other research, including hers. The findings seem particularly germane to golf, in which such rest-dependent factors as focus, temper control and "executive function" can be critical. Marc L. Benton, a New Jersey physician (and 9-handicapper) who specializes in sleep problems, found that golfers who received treatment for sleep apnea--a disorder that is common among middle-age men and is characterized by health-destroying interruptions in nighttime breathing, as well as sonic-boom-like snoring--improved their handicaps significantly. He also found that the biggest gains were achieved by the better players, who were being held back not by ability but by what Benton described to me as "the bag over their head."

The sure way to diagnose apnea, insomnia and other sleep problems is with a formal sleep study, usually conducted in a center like the one that Benton runs (SleepWell Centers of New Jersey) or the one where Mah works (Stanford's Sleep Disorders Clinic). My friend and occasional golf buddy John underwent such a study, at a local hospital. A technician, before tucking him in, spent almost an hour attaching electrodes and sensors to his head, torso and limbs--interventions that seemed likely to cause sleep problems. But John conked out quickly, and he exhibited such severe apnea that his doctor concluded he wasn't getting much real rest.

A cellphone is no substitute for a trained clinician, they say, but there are several smartphone apps that are meant to estimate sleep quality. Sleep Cycle (for the iPhone; 99 cents) and Sleep as Android (free for two weeks, then $1.99) use the phone's accelerometer to measure how much you flail around during the night, on the assumption that when you're moving the most you're sleeping the least. You place your phone next to you in bed, and in the morning you see a wave graph representing your nocturnal fidgetiness. Both apps include an alarm that can be set to wake you, gently, during what the phone interprets as a period of light sleep.

I tried Sleep as Android for several nights. It confirmed something I'd suspected: I sleep soundly for three or four hours, then wake up to pee and brood about problems that won't seem like problems in the morning. But it suggested that I don't stay awake brooding for as long as I think--and that fact alone was oddly restful. I also bought a Zeo Sleep Manager Mobile (myzeo.com; $99). It comes with a Bluetooth-enabled sensor, which you attach to your forehead with an adjustable headband. The sensor measures head motion and brain activity and beams data to your phone. I found wearing the headband mildly annoying, like sleeping in a hat; but the graph on my phone in the morning looked cool.

Zeo offers hardware and a number of sleep-improvement support services. The company makes no medical claims, but you can upload your Sleep Manager stats, follow "7 Steps to Sleep Fitness" and share your experiences. None of that affects apnea, which most often requires treatment by a doctor, but, based on the testimonials I read, I'd say that many insomniacs enjoy being part of a community, and that working to improve their "ZQ sleep score" helps them stay on the case. There's also a competitive element, which golfers might find appealing. Once you've established a baseline ZQ, you can think of it as even par, and try to beat it.

Of course, no two golfers are alike. Tiger Woods is said to sleep just four or five hours a night; Michelle Wie tries for 10 or 12.

david owen

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