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How to Choose the Right Heart Rate Monitor

The Value of Heart Rate

Heart
rate monitors (HRMs) can be immensely beneficial if you know how to use
the information they collect. Exercise has very different effects on
the body depending on how high you push your heart rate and for how
long. Training intelligently means using heart rate data to guide your
workouts. Sometimes you might want to keep your heart rate relatively
low to burn fat or pace yourself for a longer workout, whereas other
times you want to push it higher for different health benefits, like
building stamina. Another reason to own a HRM is to keep an eye
on your resting heart rate with a device that will automatically record
it for you.

There are many new types and styles of monitors on the market these days, including those that come in some of our favorite fitness trackers.
This article looks instead at standalone HRMs. You can use a standalone
HRM in conjunction with a fitness tracker or a sports watch—most people do. As you’ll see, there are several benefits to adding a separate monitor to your fitness accessories.

Electric HRM vs. Optical

When
it comes to finding the right HRM, the biggest question is whether to
choose a classic chest strap, which uses an electrical pulse to read
your heart rate, or something that uses optical technology instead. Optical
technology is what’s used in many Fitbit devices, the Apple Watch, and
other wrist-based activity trackers. It’s also typically used for in-ear
measurements in the case of sports headphones that read heart rate.

Without
getting too technical, chest straps read the small electrical signal
your body creates to make your heart constrict. Optical technology sends
light into the skin and reads the light coming back. Based on that
information and what we know about how light scatters when it hits
bloodflow, the data is translated into pulse. (Valencell, a company that
makes HRMs and parts, has a detailed description of how optical heart rate sensors work.)

Electrical
technology tends to be more accurate. Taking a measurement from the arm
or wrist is more difficult because it’s a part of the body that can
swing rapidly during activity, creating more data noise that must be
accounted for when computing the final reading. In-ear optical HRMs tend
to be better than wrist-based ones because the ear doesn’t move nearly
as much. The skin of the ear is better suited to optical readings than
the arm, as well.

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Are Heart Rate Monitors Accurate?

Now
that you know a little about how different HRMs work and why some are
more accurate than others, it’s important to address the issue of how
much accuracy matters. There are generally two reasons consumers
(i.e., not medical professionals or elite athletes) want to know
their heart rate data: To get to know their resting heart rate, and to
use heart rate data for exercise and training.

Resting heart rate is easy. You can read it by feeling your pulse with two fingers and counting it. You can also read it using a free app and a smartphone camera.
It’s easy to read resting heart rate with or without a device, and it’s
easy to check any reading against one collected from a different
method.

More importantly, ask your doctor whether
they care if your resting heart rate is, say, 58 versus 60. The answer
is probably no. It’s more important to know whether your resting heart
rate is within a healthy range. So, your doctor will care if your heart
rate is 80 when it should be closer to 60. My point is a very fine
degree of accuracy isn’t important for any practical reason for most
consumers.

Similarly, when people use heart rate for
training and exercise, the exact number of beats per minute matters
less than the heart rate zone. Many fitness apps that pair with HRMs
either estimate or calibrate custom heart rate zones for you, and show
them on a graph with the zones blocked out in different colors. The
point, again, is that knowing the exact number of beats per minute isn’t
as important as knowing the reading within a general range.

There
is one more use of heart rate data, and here, accuracy does matter
more, but it’s a different kind of accuracy. Heart rate recovery, or how
quickly your heart rate decreases after intense activity, is a great
measurement of one’s health and fitness. In our testing, chest straps
are much more accurate than optical heart monitors for this kind of
reading. Optical monitors tend to lag slightly behind when it comes to
detecting rapid heart rate change. Is it enough of a difference to
matter to the typical consumer? Probably not. But if you use heart rate
seriously for fitness, you might care more about this issue.

ANT+ vs. Bluetooth Heart Rate Monitors

Many
HRMs use ANT+ only. ANT+ is a wireless technology that’s been around
since before Bluetooth became popular, and is used in a lot of other
sports equipment, from bicycle cadence meters to treadmills. ANT+ is
less commonly used in phones, however. So when you want to pair an ANT+
device to a phone and app, you often need an adapter. Heart rate
monitors that use Bluetooth are much easier to connect directly to your
phone.

Consider Comfort

In
terms of comfort, chest straps will never get a thumbs up across the
board. Chest straps wrap snugly around the chest at the sternum, and if
they’re not tight enough, they can slide down or wiggle out of place.
Repositioning them while you’re in motion is tough. A bad one can chafe
your skin, too, and they’re poor at providing visual feedback because
you can’t see them.

I tend to prefer arm bands over
chest straps. They’re much easier to wear, you can adjust them quickly
even while you’re in motion, and they don’t cause chafing. They can also
have LEDs that flash different colors depending on your heart
rate zone. That’s the kind of visual feedback you can’t get from a chest
strap alone. Usually with chest straps you have to rely on a connected
tracker to see your heart rate numbers.

Double-Duty HRMs

Earlier I
mentioned in-ear optical HRMs. They’re neat because they’re built into
sports headphones, so you essentially get two devices for the price of
one. While these devices cost a lot more than other HRMs, they’re a good value if you’re also in the market for a new pair of wireless sports headphones.

And let’s not forget fitness trackers. The Apple Watch Series 5 not only features a heart rate monitor, it has a sensor that functions as an electrocardiogram (ECG) and generates a PDF of your heart rhythm that you can share with your doctor. It’s even been cleared by the FDA.

With
that in mind, these are the best HRMs we’ve tested. Remember that this
list does not include heart rate monitors that are built into fitness
trackers. Rather, these are heart rate monitors you can use
independently or pair with other equipment.

  • Polar H10 Heart Rate Sensor

    Polar H10 Heart Rate Sensor

    Pros: Accurate readings in testing.
    Comfortable.
    Good battery life.
    Waterproof.
    Doesn’t require phone nearby.

    Cons: App charges for common features.
    GymLink connection occasionally lags.

    Bottom Line: Versatile, comfortable, and highly accurate, the Polar H10 is one of the best heart rate monitors money can buy.

  • Polar H9

    Polar H9

    Pros: Competitive price
    Accurate
    Supports ANT+, Bluetooth, and 5 kHz transmission (Gymlink)
    Easy to use
    Long battery life
    Comfortable
    Waterproof

    Cons: Lacks some features you get with pricier monitors

    Bottom Line: The entry-level Polar H9 is the best heart rate monitor for anyone with basic needs, with a wide range of compatibility and an excellent companion app.

    Read Review

  • Garmin HRM-Dual

    Garmin HRM-Dual

    Pros: Accurate in testing. Long battery life. Uses ANT+ and Bluetooth. Comfortable. Machine-washable strap.

    Cons: Can’t connect directly to Garmin Connect app. No special features.

    Bottom Line: Garmin’s HRM-Dual chest strap heart rate monitor can connect to just about any device or app. It’s reliable, accurate, long-lasting, and comfortable, although it doesn’t include any special features.

    Read Review

  • Garmin HRM-Run

    Garmin HRM-Run

    Pros: Collects six advanced running stats when used with a compatible device.
    Accurate.
    Comfortable.

    Cons: Uses ANT+ only, no Bluetooth.
    Not machine washable.

    Bottom Line: The HRM-Run is the heart rate strap to buy if you have one of the Garmin fitness trackers that work with it.
    It’s a data junkie’s dream come true, giving you advanced stats, such as oscillation and ground contact time.

  • Polar OH1

    Polar OH1

    Pros: Convenient form factor.
    Practically weightless.
    Rechargeable battery.
    Onboard memory.
    Works with Strava.

    Cons: Only reads heart rate.
    Limited app connectivity.

    Bottom Line: The Polar OH1 is an optical armband heart rate monitor rather than a chest strap, and is one of the better devices in the category.

  • Scosche Rhythm24

    Scosche Rhythm24

    Pros: Comfortable.
    Color-coded heart rate zone light.
    Triathlon mode.
    Works with Bluetooth and ANT+ devices.
    Accurate.

    Cons: Lackluster mobile app.
    Difficult to operate.
    Requires another device or app to get the most out of it.

    Bottom Line: Scosche’s Rhythm24 armband heart rate monitor is a welcome alternative to chest straps, but be sure to set aside time to study the instructions.

  • Wahoo Tickr Fit

    Wahoo Tickr Fit

    Pros: Effortless setup. Rechargeable battery. Supports ANT+ and Bluetooth. Comfortable. Connects to a range of devices and apps.

    Cons: Must remove device from arm to adjust. Can’t see heart rate or zones on sensor itself.

    Bottom Line: Setting up and using the Wahoo Tickr Fit armband to measure heart rate during exercise couldn’t be easier, making it a top pick among heart rate monitors.

    Read Review

  • Scosche Rhythm+

    Scosche Rhythm+

    Pros: Armband heart rate monitor; no need to wear a chest strap.
    Reasonably priced.
    Supports both ANT+ and Bluetooth devices.

    Cons: Ideal position, up by elbow, is slightly awkward.
    Band is a dust bunny magnet.
    No real-time heart rate feedback.

    Bottom Line: Twenty-first century fitness enthusiasts no longer have to suffer the discomfort of chest strap heart rate monitors.
    The Scosche Rhythm+ armband collects your heart rate data and works with ANT+ and Bluetooth devices.
    It’s not the most innovative device, but it’s a reliable and reasonably priced option.


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