Fitness Articles

Listen to Your Heart Rate Monitor

The Importance of this Training Tool

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Imagine you’re driving on a country road. You’re enjoying the ride and noticing the cars that you pass along the way, excited to get to your destination. Suddenly you see those familiar red and blue lights flashing in your rearview mirror and you pull over to the side of the road. When the officer approaches, she asks you how fast you were going and you have no idea—you weren’t paying attention to your speedometer. Or even worse, your speedometer is broken! Whether you’re new to driving or have been doing it for decades, it’s hard to guess how fast you’re going without using that handy meter. Are you moving too slowly or just right? Should you match the speed of the other drivers around you, or are they being too risky? Is your speed conserving fuel or will you run out of gas before you reach your destination?

Exercising without accurately monitoring your intensity is like driving a car without a speedometer. It poses uncertainty (is your intensity level appropriate?), risk (are working too hard for your body to handle?), and health concerns (is your speed improving or hurting your health?).

In the world of fitness technology, using a heart rate monitor is the most accurate and convenient way to assess your exercise intensity (provided that you are not pregnant or on any medication that may affect your heart rate). Plus they offer a host of other benefits, such as calorie burn calculation and training guidelines. Read on to find out how a heart rate monitor (HRM) can help you reach your health and fitness goals and why SparkPeople’s fitness experts consider them to be excellent investments and tools for every person who exercises.

What is a heart rate monitor?
A heart rate monitor is an electronic device that allows you to continuously monitor your heart rate while exercising. Typically it consists of two elements, a comfortable chest strap and a wrist receiver. The chest strap is adjustable to accommodate a variety of sizes. You strap it around the chest, and it picks up your heartbeat and transmits it to the receiver, which usually doubles as a digital watch. The receiver then displays your heart rate (among other things) during your exercise session.

Why should I use one?
Here some of the top reasons why you should consider purchasing a heart rate monitor:
  • Measure the intensity of your workout. Exercise intensity is very important. When too low, you’re not burning that many calories or achieving the health benefits of exercise; when too high, you could be risking injury or HURTING your body’s ability to burn fat efficiently. Using a heart rate monitor shows you exactly where you stand at every moment of your workout so you can quickly assess and readjust if necessary—without stopping, counting your pulse, or doing any math calculations.
     
  • Calculate your target training zone. A proper aerobic training zone varies between 55% and 85% of your maximum heart rate, depending on your health status and fitness level. Most monitors allow you to input information such as your age, weight, gender and resting heart rate to calculate your training zone. Some even test your heart rate during exercise to assess your fitness level before recommending a training zone. By using a heart rate monitor, you'll know when to change up your routine to continue challenging yourself once the same activity becomes easy for you.
  • Calculate how many calories you burn during exercise. Not all models offer this feature, but calculations from a HRM are much more accurate than other methods that tend to overestimate calorie burn (such as the readout from a machine or an online calculator). Knowing the number of calories you're burning is particularly important when trying to lose weight.

In addition, the data from a heart rate monitor can be useful when reporting back to your doctor about your fitness program; the receiver (watch) usually offers other useful tools, such as a timer for your exercise session, data storage, and programmable features, such as a beeping alarm that will sound when your intensity is too low or too high. Most models will allow you to monitor your heart rate in both beats per minute and percentage of max, depending on which method is easiest for you to understand.

How do I choose a heart rate monitor?
There are hundreds of different models and styles to choose from, so think about the features that are most important to you before making a purchase. Do you want a heart rate monitor that is water resistant for swimming; that will save workout information you can upload to your computer; that offers different training programs; or one that counts calories?

The more features the monitor offers, the more complicated it can be to program and the higher the cost. A heart rate monitor can cost anywhere from $20 to $600 depending on the features you want and need.

  • Basic models ($20 to $70): Some of the most basic monitors are a combination sports wristwatch and heart rate monitor. Typically a simple model can program your target training zone, display time of day and act as a stopwatch. Basic models usually show your heart rate in beats per minute instead of percentage max. You can use the watch even when you aren't exercising, but there are few style and color options.
     
  • Intermediate models ($70 to $100): These monitors will include the features above, as well as calculate your calories burned based on your body weight, gender, and heart rate during exercise. Some models display your calories burned during an exercise session or total calories burned at the end of the workout. A middle-of-the-road model will usually show your heart rate in both beats per minute and percentage max, and offer some additional perks like water resistance and your choice of color and style.
     
  • Advanced models ($100+): These monitors give you a detailed summary of your workouts such as average heart rate, lap times, time spent in/below/above your target training zone, calories burned, etc. They also store this information for future reference so that you can track progress over time. Some of the most advanced models allow you to download the information to a computer, where a program will analyze your exercise sessions and make recommendations.
Consider the ease of use when making your choice. Most monitors come with a watch and chest strap. That makes it very easy to monitor your stats during your workout. However, there are a few that don't require a chest strap, instead detecting your pulse by placing one or two fingers on sensor buttons. These cannot give you a constant reading of your pulse and are not as accurate as the chest strap models. In addition, it can be difficult to stop your workout, put your fingers on the sensors, wait for a reading, and then resume the workout.

Even though a heart rate monitor can be an excellent way to judge the intensity of your workout, it's still important to pay attention to your body and not rely solely on the monitor for feedback. Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and the “Talk Test” are two other ways to know how hard you're working. For more detailed information on these methods, visit the Exercise Intensity section of the Fitness Reference Guide. With a good heart rate monitor, you’ll never again have to exercise in the dark, without knowing how you’re doing. Remember that when it comes to exercise, you have to listen to your heart.

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Member Comments

  • ANNE-IN-GTX
    I'm glad you drew the parallel of speedometer and HRM because there are many people who would question the accuracy of BOTH!
    Most of the time, they are accurate enough.
  • SHARSS
    I just received a PolarFt1 from Amazon and it's going back. Why? 1. The settings were screwed up. All I cared about was seeing my heart rate. 2. The colon is blinking with no way to turn it off. Naturally, this has already been using up battery. It's made in China and been using battery juice since it left the factory in China?

    No thanks.
  • Great article. Need to get one.
  • I also had a polar HRM watch but i was not able to understand it , it was alt lease 2 yrs i had it and decide that i had to have somebody try to set it for me
    I had to replace the bateries but the it got replace but he did not understand it either

    Finely i had it set and it was not any good to me i still did not understand it , all i wanted
    was to find out how much calories i was burning while i was doing exercise

    Why do they make those watches so complicated it must be about 5 to 7 yrs ago
    and i had pay 125$ at the time. would somebody would know of a watch that is simple
    to set all i really want is how much calories i burn, while i do exercise
  • GOTONANCY1
    Informative. Excellent read. Thanks for sharing this HRM article
  • I also have the Polar ft4 ....I've had mine 4 years and replaced the battery for the first time this year !!! You can do it yourself (or take to jeweler) it takes regular watch battery so don't send it in. I would NEVER exercise without it ever !!! I don't need the laps, or extras tracked. I only need the time and calories burned but this allows me to be so accurate and helped me to lose weight !!

    All my fitness is now tracked manually so I know exactly where I am. I've even worn mine all night to see calories burned throughout day and it was only 20 calories from what my dr. metobolic testing was !! Very accurate !! I have the front plastic and the back half elastic. Very comfy !!!
  • JENNYLT1
    I have to jump on the Polar bandwagon as well. I use the Polar ft4. It is a wonderful, mid-priced HRM. I bought it based on ease of use - I really only want a HRM to monitor my heart rate and tell me how many calories I'm burning, so I didn't want to pay for extra bells and whistles that I wouldn't use. It cost about $90, the strap is comfortable and adjustable, and I bought my wrist monitor in a pretty pink color. It is not so bulky that you can't also use it as your regular watch. You can program all your stats in there and change as you lose or gain weight so you always have an accurate read of how many calories you've burned, and it stores that data in there as well in case you move from doing cardio to lifting at the gym and want to record calories separately. You can also change the battery yourself on this model which is so convenient. It also seems to display my heart rate on the cardio machines at the gym too so I can keep the setting on my wrist monitor on calories burned to monitor both simultaneously. I would definitely recommend this monitor to anyone.
  • GIANT-STEPS
    I got an Omron HR-100C for Christmas. What can I say, cheap, works well, and has user replaceable batteries. The last HRM I owned was twice as expensive and needed the chest strap back to the company for battery replacement! Only time will tell if the unit is durable though.
  • the comment is helpful but i would like to hear more about the actual monitors themselves. i did get a little bit of help from the comments also though!
  • HEIDISO
    I can't wear a heartrate monitor. I purchased one after reaching a goal and just loved it. I thought it would be a great motivational tool to keep me exercising in the right direction. But after about 1 month the thing died. I figured it was just the battery since I drain watch batteries on a regular basis. But no I totally fried it, I put in a new battery and still no power. So I just keep doing what I'm doing and push forward without that gauge as a reference.
  • RONDUA82
    I just bought m first HRM (SIGMA - I'm not sure if this one is available in the States) and checked it right away at my Zumba class. I was surprised how many calories I burned! Wow! The HRM helped me to monitor my pulse which went way to high at some point. I knew when I needed to slow down. I think I will be using it during all my workouts.
  • great article. fyi REI has a spread sheet of features of the models they sell. it helped me purchase mine.
  • Hi, like Ladybug-Dr I would very much like to see an article comparing the different models out there from low to high end to help in finding just the right HRM for me. I would like to add this to my "rewards" list to help me benefit more from my workouts.
    I have no knowledge what so ever about HRM and this article gave me an good basic overview.
    Please let me know more about HRM so I can make a great decision without a lot of trial and errors and extra cost.
  • Right now, I am trying to decided which one to get. Hopefully, I will find one I would like to use.
  • I just bought a Polar FT40 and so far I like it. I was surprised to see that the calories I'm actually burning are much lower than the fitness tracker on this site says. I also found out that most of my workout is spent in the fitness zone rather than in the fat burning zone, which is where I really need to be. I'm excited that I'm going to be able to monitor my efforts and progress much more closely. Thanks to this HRM, I think I've finally discovered why I'm not burning any fat.

About The Author

Nicole Nichols Nicole Nichols
A certified personal trainer and fitness instructor with a bachelor's degree in health education, Nicole loves living a healthy and fit lifestyle and helping others do the same. Nicole was formerly SparkPeople's fitness expert and editor-in-chief, known on the site as "Coach Nicole." Make sure to explore more of her articles and blog posts.

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