Best Heart Rate Monitors of 2019
A heart rate monitor keeps track of your pulse during your workout. Our shopping guide is here to help you find the best heart rate monitor for your fitness needs.
Your Guide to the Best Heart Rate Monitors
Whether you're training for your fourth marathon or just starting to get into fitness, keeping your heart rate in the optimal zone for peak benefits is an important part of working out. But unless you can manage to take your pulse while in the middle of a run or exercise class, it's hard to know exactly how fast your heart is beating.
To the rescue: heart rate monitors. These high-tech devices not only keep track of your pulse during your workout, many—these are sometimes called fitness trackers—also count your calories burned, distance covered, speed, and other exercise statistics.
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Heart Rate Monitor or Fitness Tracker?
While there's a great deal of overlap, and many people use the terms interchangeably, a heart rate monitor is a device that focuses on beats per minute (BPM). Many fitness trackers monitor heart rate, but they also display and graph a wide range of other exercise functions, including distance and speed, calories burned, and intensity. Some fitness trackers even let you log your daily food intake.
The Three Types of Heart Rate Monitors
When shopping for a heart rate monitor, you'll find three basic types: wristband, chest-strap, and earbud heart rate monitors.
Wristband Heart Rate Monitors
A wristband heart rate monitor fits and looks like a wristwatch. Some wristband heart rate monitors show your heart rate continuously. With others, you push a button or press on the watch's edge to see your readings. An optical sensor detects your pulse rate through your skin, so a wristband heart rate monitor needs to be positioned securely—but not too tightly—right above the knobby bone on the outer edge of your wrist.
Wristband heart rate monitors are likeliest to have a wide range of other health-tracking features, such as calorie count and speed.
- Easy to position
- Comfortable to wear
- Many fitness-tracking features available
- Wide range of colors and styles
- Generally, not as accurate as chest-strap heart rate monitors
- Slight lag in showing heart rate increases
- Swimming can throw off accuracy
Chest-Strap Heart Rate Monitors
With a chest-strap heart rate monitor, you strap a band (typically made of stretchy elastic) around your chest so that the sensor rests directly against your skin. Correct placement of the chest strap is crucial for accurate results. As a rule, the sensor should be over the base of your breastbone. For men, the strap goes right below the nipples. For women, the strap should be positioned right below the breasts.
The sensor in the chest strap transmits your heart rate—measured by the electrical impulses given off by your heart—to a wristband or to your smartphone. A glance at the display shows you your current reading at any point during your exercise session.
- Stays in place through just about any vigorous activity
- Most accurate results
- Shows changes in heart rate immediately
- Can be worn while swimming if waterproof
- Must position the sensor correctly
- Sensor must be moistened before positioning
- Strap can chafe or feel restricting
Earbud Heart Rate Monitors
Earbud heart rate monitors slip into your ears just like regular earbuds, so you can listen to your favorite tunes while monitoring your pulse. They provide a readout of your heart rate on your smartphone or other Bluetooth-enabled device. Comfortable to wear, secure through just about any type of exercise, and unobtrusive, earbud heart rate monitors have optomechanical sensors that work by detecting blood flow and pulse through the skin inside your ears. Most are wireless.
- Very convenient
- Typically, more accurate than wristband heart rate monitors
- Not as accurate as chest-strap heart rate monitors
Target Zones: Features to Look for When Buying Heart Rate Monitors
Depending on the type of heart rate monitor you choose, you'll find a variety of available features. The following are some of the most common, particularly for wristband heart rate monitors.
Target Zones: All heart rate monitors indicate when your pulse is in various "target zones," which are determined by your age. Depending on the heart rate monitor, the target zones are indicated with a sound, light, or colored graph. Typically, the target zones are:
- Warm Up: no more than 50 percent of your maximum heart rate
- Fat Burning: 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate
- Cardio: 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate
Recovery Rate: This measures how long it takes your heart to return to your resting pulse after exercise.
Sports Watch: Generally, a sports watch includes a stopwatch, timer, calendar, and alarm.
Calorie Counter: A calorie counter is a rough estimate of the calories burned during an exercise session.
Digital Interface: A digital interface connects your heart rate monitor to your home computer, smartphone, or smartwatch.
Average and Maximum Heart Rates: This feature shows your average heart rate and highest heart rate during your exercise session.
Lap Counter: A lap counter keeps track of laps when you're running or swimming.
Speed and Distance: This pedometer function tracks your speed and distance while running or walking.
Route Mapping: This GPS feature maps your route while running, walking, or bicycling.
How Much Do Effective Heart Rate Monitors Cost?
- Wristband Heart Rate Monitors: There's a wide range of prices for wristband heart rate monitors. You'll find accurate, albeit basic, wristband heart rate monitors for around $30, but if you want a number of desirable features, consider the $50 to $70 range.
- Chest-Strap Heart Rate Monitors: While you'll find inexpensive chest-strap heart rate monitors for less than $50, they are likely to be less accurate and have fewer desirable features than monitors in the $70 to $100 range. If you want all the bells and whistles, you'll need to spend more than $100 for a high-end chest-strap heart rate monitor.
- Earbud Heart Rate Monitors: Earbud heart rate monitors tend to be the most expensive. Generally, you'll pay $100 to $200 for quality earbud heart rate monitors, although you can find decent but less accurate monitors for under $100.
Tips for Using Heart Rate Monitors
- Dampen the sensor of your chest-strap heart rate monitor with a bit of water, saline, or even saliva before positioning it on your skin. This creates a good seal to hold your heart rate monitor in place.
- If your heart rate monitor is linked to a smartphone, keep your phone on the same side of your body as the sensor.
- Keep your wristband heart rate monitor out of intense direct sunlight, which can interfere with the signal.
- Expect somewhat inaccurate results from a wristband heart rate monitor when your hands are tightly clenched, like when you're lifting weights or making a fist during kickboxing.
- Know your baseline resting heart rate. Check it first thing in the morning several days in a row. On average, a man's resting heart rate is between 60 and 80 BPM, while a woman's is 70 to 90 BPM. However, a person in excellent condition might have a much lower resting heart rate, while a person in poor condition might have a resting heart rate as high as 100 BPM.
- Your chest-strap or wristband heart rate monitor should fit snugly without being too tight. And make sure the heart rate monitor is not upside down, or it may not measure accurately.
- Clean your heart rate monitor strap periodically following the manufacturer's directions. Heart rate monitors build up sweat and oil.
Q. How do I determine my target heart ranges?
A. A rough guideline that's often used is to take your age and subtract 220, and that is your maximum heart rate. For example, if you are 40 years old, your maximum heart rate is 180 BPM. While warming up, your heart rate should be roughly half your maximum. When training for endurance, aim for a heart rate that's between 60 and 70 percent of your maximum. During intense cardio training, aim for a heart rate that is 70 to 80 percent of your maximum.
That said, it's always best to check with an exercise professional to determine your own specific numbers.
Q. Should everyone train with a heart rate monitor?
A. While heart rate monitors have many benefits, they are not necessary for everyone. If you're a newbie to exercise, prefer casual workouts, or mostly do exercise classes, a heart rate monitor isn't really a must. If you are training for competition or high-endurance activities like marathons, or you simply take your fitness very seriously, a heart rate monitor can help you stay on track.
Q. Is it safe to wear a heart rate monitor if I have a pacemaker?
A. While generally heart rate monitors are considered safe for people with implanted pacemakers, you should always check with your doctor before starting to use a heart rate monitor.