Blog Category: Fitness 4.0

Who needs a heart-rate monitor? You (maybe).
By Mary Weaver | Posted December 6, 2012
Woman running in winter

We love getting gadgets for Christmas, and perhaps you’ve been wondering whether you should hint about receiving a heart-rate monitor on December 25.

It’s been a while since I used a heart-rate monitor (HRM), so I’ve been perusing the options. But before I tell you which models might make the cut on my personal wish list, let’s look at who actually needs an HRM.

There’s only one kind of exerciser for whom a monitor is an absolute necessity: someone whose doctor has said she must track her heart rate for health reasons. If you have cardiovascular disease or have had a heart attack or stroke, you’re probably in this camp. For you, exercising at and below a certain heart rate is critical, and an HRM makes it easy to be sure.

But a monitor can help just about anyone up-level her cardio program and get better results. Seeing the numbers can also be a powerful motivator. So you might consider the investment if:
* you’re a new exerciser and aren’t yet sure what constitutes the right amount of effort
* you do interval training and want to make sure you’re working at the right intensity
* you’re an athletic competitor who needs to make sure she’s training sufficiently hard to prepare for her event
* you’re someone who simply enjoys having more information about what’s going on with her body. There’s even a term for the phenomenon of seeking increased self-knowledge through tracking personal data: “the quantified self.” (Geeky, yes, but I can’t make fun because I’m one of those people.)

So if you fall into any of the above categories, you can benefit from an HRM.

Do you need to track your heart rate all the time? Unless you’re wearing a monitor for medical reasons, no. In fact, one of the best reasons to use an HRM is so you can learn what it feels like to exercise at a specific percentage of your maximum heart rate. (See this article for more information:

The idea is to get in touch with your body sensations at, say, 60 percent, 70 percent and 80 percent of your max heart rate so you’ll have a clearer idea how hard you’re working even when you’re not wearing the device.

Buying tips
The best HRMs consist of a chest strap and a wristwatch. The strap picks up your heartbeat and broadcasts it to the watch. Some monitors attempt to do without the strap and to check your heart rate with a fingertip sensor. They’re not as accurate, though, so I recommend sticking with models that include a chest strap.

There are plenty of options on the market, but a couple of brands stand out. Polar is the granddaddy in this category and its products get consistently high ratings from consumers. Timex is also a big player in this space, and its Zone Trainer scored the highest in a Consumer Reports evaluation. Its results were the most accurate when compared with the data generated by an electrocardiograph. Other solid brands to consider are Omron (at the lower price point) and Garmin (at the high end).

Expect to spend between $40 and $300 for a heart-rate monitor, with most models available for $100 or less.

When you’re shopping, be aware that some monitors (including several by Polar and Timex) also estimate calories burned during exercise, based on your age, height, weight, gender and max heart rate. If that’s an important option for you, make sure your model includes it.

Do you use an HRM—or hope to get one soon? Please let me know in the comment box.

Mary is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and you can find her online at

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