Listen to Your Heart Rate Monitor

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 you 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 fitness pros think it's worth the investment.

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.<pagebreak>

Why should I use one?

  • Measure the intensity of your workout. Exercise intensity is very important. When it's too low, you’re not burning that many calories or achieving the health benefits of exercise; when it's 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 percent 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?<pagebreak>

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. 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.