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How to choose and use a heart rate monitor

These devices can help you safely reach your fitness goals.

Whether you’re just getting started with an exercise routine or are a committed fitness enthusiast, tracking your heart rate can be helpful. Heart rate monitors—which instantly tell you how fast your heart is beating—can help you exercise at the right intensity.

“The main advantage of using a heart rate monitor is that it provides an accurate index of how much effort you’re exerting,” says Dr. Aaron L. Baggish, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Even if you keep certain variables constant, such as the speed or distance you walk, your heart rate can vary due to other factors—for example, how hydrated you are or how tired you feel on a particular day, Baggish explains.

Combined with a basic understanding of heart rate “zones”, a heart rate monitor gives you a reproducible way to gauge your effort on a day-to-day basis. This can help ensure you’re exercising hard enough to keep your heart healthy, but not so hard you are putting yourself in danger.

Basic heart rate monitors

Treadmills, elliptical machines, and other exercise equipment found in fitness centers and some home exercise rooms often feature handgrip heart rate monitors. These rely on trace amounts of sweat from your palms and the metal on the grips to detect the electric signal of your heartbeat. But they’re notoriously inaccurate, says Dr. Baggish, who recommends monitors with straps that wrap around the chest. Because the straps cover a larger area of the body, detecting a heartbeat is easier than it is with a handgrip.

Early versions of chest-strap monitors sometimes stopped working due to electrical interference from a similar device or a television nearby. Newer models have encrypted signals to avoid this problem.

Estimated heart rates for exercising


Target heart rate
(beats per minute)

Average maximum heart rate
(beats per minute)






















More advanced models

Newer monitors worn on the wrist or head use an optical sensor to determine heart rate by measuring blood flow through the skin. Some monitors have small display screens, but others need to be connected to a sports watch or smartphone. Basic models show just your heart rate; more advanced ones let you program in desired levels and sound an alarm if your heart rate goes too high or low.

If you want even more data, look into a digital fitness monitor, which can track the number of steps you take and the calories you burn, as well as sensing your speed, pace, and route via satellite navigation. “They’re nice but not necessary to get healthy exercise,” Dr. Baggish says.

Image: Thinkstock

A heart rate monitor helps you know if you’re exercising at the right level of intensity.

Heart rate terms, defined

Before you start exercising, learn the different heart rate terms:

  • Resting heart rate: This is your heart rate when you’re most relaxed. Using your heart rate monitor, measure it either right after you wake up in the morning or during the day when you’re relaxing. For men, resting heart rates are usually between 60 to 80 beats per minute (bpm); for women, they’re 70 to 90 bpm.

  • Maximum heart rate: This is an estimate of the highest heart rate a person could reach while exercising very strenuously. The formula for calculating maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age, but it varies as much as 20 bpm from person to person. If you’re healthy, there’s no risk in going above your expected maximum heart rate for short periods of time.

  • Target (or training) heart rate: This range is 65% to 80% of your maximum heart rate (see the table to find yours). “To get the most health benefit from your exercise, try to stay in your target heart rate range for at least 20 minutes during an exercise session,” says Dr. Baggish. When you start out, aim for the lower end of the zone. As you become more fit, your target heart rate should increase.

Taking heart meds? Talk to your doctor

Some medications to treat high blood pressure and heart disease slow the heart rate, especially beta blockers such as atenolol or propranolol. Ask your doctor if your medication might affect your target heart rate. He or she may recommend supervised exercise testing to give you more specific advice. 

Posted by: Dr.Health

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