Accelerometry can be a practical replacement for polysomnography in large observational studies. This review discusses the need for sleep characterization in large observational studies, exemplified by the practices of the ongoing German National Cohort study. After brief descriptions of the physical principles and state-of-the-art accelerometer devices and an overview of public data analysis algorithms for sleep-wake differentiation, we demonstrate that the spectral properties of acceleration data provide additional features that can be exploited. This leads to a periodogram-based sleep detection algorithm. Finally, we address issues of data handling and quality assurance in large cohort studies.