Fitness isn't just about the amount you exercise, it’s also about the intensity of that exercise. A heart rate monitor (HRM) is your pacer, telling you when to speed up or slow down to achieve results. To select the best model for you, consider two factors:

  • Monitor Type: Most monitors use sensors located on a chest strap or your wrist. Monitors with chest straps are more accurate; wrist-only options are more convenient.
  • Monitor Features: The most expensive models do everything imaginable. We highlight key features below, and devices are constantly adding new functionality.

This article also offers advice on how to use an HRM and who should use one:

  • Heart rate target zones are the critical data an HRM provides. We explain how to calculate yours for your age and for your fitness goals.
  • User notes highlights how an HRM can benefit a variety of people, from those focusing on weight loss to those focusing on peak performance.

For additional help deciding whether a heart rate monitor is the right tool for you, see our Expert Advice article: Fitness Electronics: How to Choose.

Shop Heart Rate Monitors

Types of Heart Rate Monitors

Chest-strap HRMs: A wireless sensor on a chest strap detects your pulse electronically and sends that data to a wristwatch-style receiver, which displays your heart rate. Once you get used to the routine of putting it on and working out with it on, a strap will provide the most accurate heart-rate results.

Shop HRMs with Chest Straps

Wrist-based HRMs: An optical sensor built into the wrist unit’s watchband or case back detects your pulse. Though they’re slightly less accurate, wrist-based models avoid the discomfort and additional pre-workout fuss associated with chest straps.

Shop Wrist-Based HRMs

Heart Rate Monitor Features

Basic HRM models time your workout and give you continuous, average, high and low heart rate data, as well as the high, low and target heart rate reached during your workout. Many models can be partnered with a foot pod that attaches to your shoelaces to track your speed, distance and cadence.

Other models have GPS receiver capabilities to track speed and distance, also providing elevation and navigation functionality. The most advanced (pricey) models have an extensive and ever-growing array of features.

Target zones: Basic models offer up to 3 target zones; advanced models have from 3 to 6 target zones. With the capacity for multiple target zones, you can preprogram your heart rate monitor for a series of different workouts (e.g., endurance, aerobic and anaerobic variations). If your HRM offers only a single aerobic target zone, you'll need to reprogram it every time you want to change the exercise parameters.

Sport watch: Includes features such as a clock, alarm, countdown timer and calendar.

Stopwatch and lap/split times: After each lap at a track or every mile on a marked-distance race course, hit the "Lap" button to see how your pace has changed throughout your workout or race (a.k.a. your "split").

Recovery heart rate mode: Tracks the time it takes your heart to return to its normal, resting rate. It's a good indicator of cardiovascular fitness and especially important if your workouts include sprints or interval training.

Time in target zone: Tracks the time you spend exercising within your target zone. Some zones and goals require more time than others.

Calorie counter: Estimates the calories burned during exercise. This can be especially handy if your workouts are part of a weight-loss program.

Speed and distance monitor: Calculates the speed and measures the distance covered in a particular workout. This is typically done via a GPS receiver for outdoor use or a foot pod for indoor use or use in an outdoor area with limited satellite reception. A foot pod uses an accelerometer to determine the length of each stride. 

Digital interface: Connects your heart rate monitor to your home computer or smartphone so you can download training statistics for analysis, sharing and storage. This may be wireless or require a separate computer connection.

Tethering: Wirelessly pairs with your smartphone to allow wrist-top control of phone functions such as text messages, music, push notifications, fitness apps and social media—all without taking your phone out of a pocket or armband.

Fitness trainer: Provides alerts for intensity levels that fall above or below your chosen training zones.

Coded transmitter: Encrypts transmissions from the chest strap sensor to the wrist unit to prevent crosstalk (signals from the wireless HRMs of others exercising around you).

Sport-specific features: These can include speed and cadence feedback for cyclists or pool-lap counters and stroke recognition for swimmers.

Battery replacement: Some HRM wrist receivers use consumer-replaceable or rechargeable batteries to simplify maintenance.

Heart Rate Target Zones

A key benefit of an HRM is that it helps you maintain the optimal heart rate target zone for your specific goal. Higher-end models inform you of this via a digital display and/or an audible tone.

The target zone is a percentage range based on your maximum heart rate (HRmax). Various algorithms have been developed to calculate an HRmax estimate, but the simplest is:

HRmax = 220 – your age.

The American Heart Association offers the chart below as a general guideline. (Note that some medications can affect your target rate zone.) However, it is always best to have a stress test under a physician's supervision to determine your actual HRmax.

Heart Rate Target Zone
50-85%

Avg. Maximum Heart Rate
100%

Age 

Beats/minute

Beats/minute

20

100–170

200

25

98–166

195

30

95–162

190

35

93–157

185

40

90–153

180

45

88–149

175

50

85–145

170

55

83–140

165

60

80–136

160

65

78–132

155

70

75–128

150

A maximum heart rate at different aerobic zones provides specific results:

Endurance (60%–70%): Considered ideal for endurance and weight-loss programs. Develops cardiovascular and muscular efficiency. The body learns to use stored fat as fuel.

Aerobic (70%–80%): Ideal for overall cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength and weight management. The body burns mostly fat and carbohydrates in this zone.

Anaerobic (80%–90%): Used for interval workouts or consistent speed. At this zone, your breathing will be heavy and your muscles tired. Enhances lung capacity and increases lactate tolerance.

VO2 Max (90%–100%): Helps enhance speed in athletes (who exercise at this level only for short periods as muscles quickly go into oxygen debt).

Who Should Use a Heart Rate Monitor?

Note: Before initiating any exercise program, consult a physician to design a program that is well suited for your goals and current conditioning.

Joggers and walkers: Recreational exercisers can benefit from heart rate monitors in the same way elite athletes do. By aiming for fat-burning and aerobic target zones on your HRM, you can get more out of your exercise time. 

Runners: A heart rate monitor can keep you in your peak target zone on intense training days and at your aerobic base during easier sessions.

Cyclists: An HRM can track your training performance during endurance, tempo and interval rides, whether you bike on a road, trail or stationary trainer. Some models deliver more feedback via a cadence sensor or foot pod. 

Triathletes: In addition to cyclist-related features, some HRMs monitor swim-related data like distance, pace, stroke type/count and number of pool lengths.

Hikers, climbers and skiers: Use a heart rate monitor to condition more effectively for a peak ascent.

Weight-loss participants: HRMs help with regular exercise and a sustainable dietary regimen. Most display calories burned during a workout; many can help target your exercise for maximum fat burning.

Injury-rehabilitation patients: Real-time feedback makes HRMs valuable for patients recovering from an injury or an illness, including a cardiac incident. Such data can help ensure that your gradual return to full strength and endurance proceeds safely and steadily.

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