The ability to monitor your heart rate while exercising once required very expensive equipment. But thanks to the ever improving technological landscape, Heart rate monitoring is now a feature found on many fitness watches.
And if you are someone who takes his or her fitness seriously, it may be worth your while to invest in a reliable heart rate monitor. This is because being able to track your heart rate in real time will allow you to see if you are within your "optimal zone".
Don’t know your optimal zone? That’s easy: you should aim to exercise at 70 to 80% of your maximum heart rate. To get your maximum heart rate simply subtract your age from the number 220.
But it can be tedious to have to measure your heart rate by taking your pulse constantly. Thats where heart rate monitors come in. Heart rate monitors will also allow you to see when you are approaching your maximum heart rate in real time. This is a good thing, as exercising for too long in your maximum heart rate can cause injury or even a heart attack.
Heart rate monitors come in many shapes and sizes, and many can do much more than simply track your heart rate. In fact, most heart rate monitors work best when they are paired with a fitness tracker or smart watch. This will allow you to track additional metrics such as how many steps you have taken, your total distance traveled, and even your total calories burned during the day.
Before you rush out and buy heart rate monitor watch however, there are a few things you should consider. That's why we have created this short guide. It should help you in your search to find the best heart rate monitor watches.
There are a few different technologies and styles used in heart rate monitor tracking. And many heart rate monitor watches also come with some extra useful features. Let’s go over some of these devices now.
Heart Rate Monitor Type
There are currently two different styles heart rate monitors on the market. The chest strap style and the wrist band style.
Chest strap style heart rate monitors are usually worn under your shirt and sit against your heart. They are tend to be somewhat bulky and some people may find this uncomfortable.
Wrist style heart rate monitors operate just as they sound- by being worn on the wrist. Obviously, they are not quite as bulky as a chest strap. They typically must be worn very tightly around the wrist to get an accurate reading though.
Heart rate monitors technology
There are currently three technologies used for measuring your heart rate.
Chest strap style monitors work by measuring the electrical signals coming from your heart. If you have ever been to a hospital and seen patients with sensors stuck to their chest, than you've seen this technology in action. However chest rap style monitors use smart fabrics that do not have to be stuck to your skin. These type of sensors to tend to be highly accurate.
Optical heart rate monitors are typically found in most wrist based fitness trackers. They operate by shining a light into your wrist. The light will then reflect off the blood vessels passing through your veins. The idea is that every time your heart pumps the blood will move through your veins at a much quicker rate, causing less light to be reflected back. The tracker will then use an algorithm to calculate your heart rate. Hospitals have been using this type of technology for years in the form of optical finger clips. The style of tracking is less intrusive but not quite as accurate.
Ballistocardiography style sensors track your heart rate by monitoring the minuscule movements that your body makes when your heart is beating at a rapid pace. They are the least intrusive out of all the sensor types but possibly the least accurate.
Most chest strap style heart rate monitors have the ability to pair with a smart phone so you can utilize a dedicated fitness tracking app.
If you are opting to go with a newer style heart rate monitor, you’ll get the benefit of being able to track additional metrics as wrist based fitness trackers can typically contain accelerometers, altimeters, and other useful things like stopwatches/alarms.
Additionally, pay special attention to the type of connectivity options your tracker supports. Most chest style heart rate monitors operate under the AMT+ plus standard, but not all devices support this. It is advisable to shoot for a device with Bluetooth capabilities as this will offer you the most connectivity options.
Our Top Picks
We did extensive research to look for the best part monitors regardless of the technology used. Here are our favorites.
Best Wrist style Heart Rate Monitor: Fitbit Charge HR
The pit charge HR is a solid all-around fitness tracker that utilizes a wrist based optical heart rate monitor. The heart rate monitor that comes with the charge can give you many useful details. For instance, since the monitor is always on, the device can calculate your resting heart rate and your active heart rate to give you a better idea about your optimal fat burning zone. The device also has a accelerometer and altimeter for tracking your workouts with. Fitbits app support is fantastic, and the tracker is compatible with many other third-party apps.
Jawbone is opted to go with BCG style sensors when designing the Up4. The UP series offers a virtual fitness coach with their app that is great for keeping you motivated. The device also has very detailed sleep tracking - you will be able to see the different levels of sleep like REM, deep, and light sleep.
The UP4 is also one of the most stylish fitness trackers we’ve seen in a while. This thing is quite elegant, and does not stand out at all. You could easily wear this to a social function without getting called on out on it.
Mio Alpha 2
The Mio Alpha series were some of the first optical heart rate monitors on the scene. And there still among the best.
In addition to the stellar heart rate tracking, the Alpha 2 has an onboard accelerometer for tracking your basic fitness metrics. This device can also operate in a constant mode – meaning you don’t have to press a button to see your heart rate. A simple glance at your wrist will suffice.
The Alpha 2 also has great third-party apps support. Which is kind of a must for this style of tracker. I was able to use it with Strava and Mapmyfitness.
Most Accurate Heart Rate Monitor: Garmin Vívofit 2
The Vivofit 2 is a follow-up to last year’s model. This is another solid entry from manufacturer Garmin who are well known for their wearables - especially in the smartwatch arena. In addition to being able to track your heart rate, the Vivofit 2 can record standard fitness metrics like steps, calories, and distance.
I especially like the anti idle feature. The unit will display a red bar that will alert you after 1 hour of inactivity. I have an office job so this feature is pretty useful.
The Basis Peak is somewhere between a smartwatch and a fitness tracker – and that’s a good thing. This fully loaded device features a aceeleormeter, optical heart rate sensor, and proprietary body IQ technology that will automatically detect the activity your performing and begin tracking it immediately.
The app allows you to set up habits which differ from goals in that they are more of a daily routine to stick to rather than a long term thing. I use this as part of my activity reminding system, so i can set the device to warn me when it’s time for my daily lap.
The Peak is waterproof up to 5 ATM which means it is ideal for tracking swimming.
The peak can also receive text and phone calls when a paired with a Bluetooth compatible smart phone.
Best Chest Strap Style Heart Rate Monitor: Wahoo Tickr X
This fully loaded chest strap style monitor can easily hold its own against even the best fitness trackers - at least as far as features are concerned. On its own, the device is able to record your running ccadence and ground contact time. This is impressive as you don’t often see this too often on many fitness trackers, let alone on a standalone heart rate monitor.
What stands out most about the device is the fact that it has its own internal onboard memory. The tracker is able to capture valuable performance data such as your workout duration and total calorie burn.This is great, because it negates the need to carry a phone around with you during your workout.
The device is also equipped with LEDs to mark certain part points in your workout. Also, simply tapping the device will set a marker that will allow you to go back and look at it in the app for future reference.
It also has decent third-party apps support: we especially like the fact that it supports Strava and the and Mapmyrun, which are probably the two most useful third-party applications out there right now.
As if that weren’t enough, while who has seen fit to make the device both Bluetooth 4.0 and AMT+ compatible – so you will never be one for connectivity options.
Best Budget Heart Rate Monitor: Polar FT4
Polars FT4 is a great heart rate monitor for the money. Although it is a chest strap style heart rate monitor, the device also comes with a wrist unit that will give you current heart rate along with a calorie counter. The watch will also beep when you’re in your target heart rate zone which is an often overlooked feature that I feel should be on many other fitness trackers. Its nice to see that Polar went the extra mile here.
The chest strap sensor is also one of the smaller ones I've seen and is a little more comfortable than the typical offerings from other manufacturers.
The Polar is also water resistant and can be used to track your swim workouts.
The wrist unit is backlit which can be useful in certain low light situations. The band is highly adjustable and is very comfortable. I have often had trouble with other fitness trackers being too loose but this one fits just about right.
As for app support, it is fairly limited. Besides the stock Polar app I was only able to get the device to work with Strava. This is not a deal breaker as the device pretty much functions as a standalone unit.
Best Bluetooth Heart Rate monitor: Polar H7
The Polar H7 is a basic chest strap heart rate monitor that doesn’t disappoint. This is easily one of the more accurate heart rate trackers we tested. We also like the Polar H7 because it is Bluetooth Smart 4.0 compatible. Most chest style heart monitors only come with ANT+ plus, which can be an issue when you need to connect the sensor to something besides a fitness tracker.
Bluetooth smart is the newest low-power version of the Bluetooth protocol. It offers many benefits, chiefly in the form of extended battery life. Typically the H7 will go for 4 hours of continuous use, which is pretty good for is chest strap heart rate monitor.
The device is also compatible with Mapmyrun. This allows you to use the sensor by itself rather than having to lug along a are fitness tracker.
We found the strap was a little bit difficult to adjust but this is common with the style. The H7 is compatible with both Android and iOS devices.
Lowering Your Heart Rate
We live in rather stressful times, which makes it more important than ever to stay physically fit and keep your heart in shape. But with all of the different choices out there, choosing the best heart rate monitor is not so easy. Feel free to use the device recommendations on this list to ensure you are on track to meet your fitness goals. For more information and tips about lowering your heart rate, check out our heart rate lowering guide.