Updated April 2022
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Buying guide for best heart rate monitors

The more data you have, the better you can discern which is the most effective approach to a task. When exercising, you monitor your heart rate because, among other information, it reveals whether you are burning fat or just calories. If you are serious about getting the most out of your workouts, you need a heart rate monitor.

The best heart rate monitor has a chest strap to more accurately track your heart rate and a wrist strap so you can see the data in real time. It also connects to an app so you can save and later evaluate the fitness data collected during your workouts. Because of its ease of use, however, many people are satisfied with having just a wrist monitor and an app.

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Some monitors include an alarm to indicate you’ve exceeded your target heart rate and should slow down.

Basic heart rate monitor function

A heart rate monitor tracks your heart rate and other information related to how hard your body works during exercise.

Such data enables you to determine whether you’re working out in a heart rate zone safe for your body, while also reaching an effort level that boosts your fitness.

When exercising, your heart rate determines whether you’ve reached the optimal effort level.

As the HR monitor provides feedback regarding your heart rate, you understand whether you’re working too fast, too slow, or just right.

Basic heart rate monitor design

Two primary types of heart rate monitor designs exist: chest straps and wrist units. Some models use only one device, while others require pairing the two designs.

Wrist unit alone

Nearly all modern HR monitors use a wrist unit that fits like a wristwatch. With some designs, this wrist unit measures pulse, steps, and other fitness data.

Most people prefer a wrist unit alone because of its simple design. You just put on the wristwatch-like device and begin exercising. However, some people find inaccurate readings with wrist units alone.

Most newer wrist units include a display screen to provide constant and immediate feedback. Some older models have no screen, however.

Chest strap alone

Some HR monitors use a simple chest strap with sensors that connect wirelessly to a smartphone app or a computer. Chest strap HR monitors have existed for several years.

However, you won’t have immediate feedback while working out with a chest strap alone, as the unit has no display screen.

Additionally, some people dislike the chest strap because it’s uncomfortable to wear.

Chest strap with wrist unit

Some heart rate monitor designs use a combination of two sensors that communicate with each other.

The wrist unit makes a wireless connection with the chest strap. The chest strap’s sensors fit just over the person’s heart, allowing for an accurate heart rate measurement.

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Did you know?
If the wrist sensor and chest sensor sit more than 24-30 inches apart, the wireless signal may weaken.

Paired with smartphone apps or software

Most HR monitors send the data they collect to a smartphone app.

Inside the app, you’ll find the stored information helps you keep track of your fitness levels. Studying the app’s data keeps you moving toward your fitness goals over time.

Other heart rate monitors make a wired connection to a computer or tablet to share the data.

Heart rate monitor data tracking

When shopping for heart rate monitors, think about the type of exercise you want to track. Different HR monitors offer strengths in different areas. Some of the types of fitness data the HR monitors measure include the following. (Most of these features only appear with wrist units.)

Calorie burning

The HR monitor may estimate how many calories you’ve burned during exercise. It uses data such as your current weight, the length of your workout, and the intensity of your workout to calculate this number.

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For your safety
If you have health concerns, check with a doctor to determine the best way to use the heart rate monitor.

Recovery time

Some HR monitors will measure the amount of time your heart needs to go from the target rate to a resting rate after exercising. This measurement indicates your fitness level.

Lap or split times

Wrist HR monitors provide the ability to measure your split times, helpful for maintaining a steady pace during aerobic workouts. Additionally, some HR monitors provide audible lap counting to aid your workout.

Distance measurement

Some heart rate monitors measure distance based on the number of steps you take. Others include a GPS unit that precisely measures distance traveled in a workout. For swimmers, look for an HR monitor that specifically provides distance measurements in the water.

Speed monitor

Although most heart rate monitors measure the strength of your workout based on your heart rate, others measure your actual speed. Such monitors work best for runners or cyclists.


Like a digital watch, an HR monitor often includes a stopwatch. This allows you to measure your aerobic exercise time.

Target heart rate

You may set the monitor to sound alarms when you exceed or fall below your target heart rate. Some HR monitors only store one target heart rate at a time; others may store several. This allows you to select the target to match your current workout.


  • Most heart rate monitors use rechargeable batteries. However, some use watch size batteries that need replacement occasionally.

  • Most HR monitors aren’t waterproof. If you want to swim with a heart rate monitor, select one rated to work in water.

  • To clean a heart rate monitor’s screen and sensors, gently wipe them with a soft cloth. For stubborn stains, slightly dampen the cloth first.

  • To clean the wrist strap or chest band of an HR monitor, use warm, soapy water. Air dry the straps away from sunlight.

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Those who are already fit and healthy should use a maximum target heart rate higher than those just starting an exercise program.


Q. How do I know when I’m in my target heart rate zone?

A. As a general rule, the target heart rate works as a percentage of your maximum heart rate. When just starting an exercise program, try to stay at about 70% of your maximum heart rate. With a standard aerobic workout, look to work at about 80% of the maximum heart rate. For specific speed and power workouts, aim for about 90% of maximum heart rate. Check with your doctor if you have any concerns over your health or fitness level, and it’s always good to consult a personal trainer when designing your exercise regimen and goals.

Q. Do heart rate monitors work better for a particular type of exercise?

A. Some models of HR monitors offer data tracking aimed at certain types of exercise. For example, you need a water resistant or waterproof monitor for use during swimming. Some HR monitors work better for cycling than running. Other HR monitors offer a full range of measurements, allowing them to have success in multiple exercise arenas.

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