Using a Heart Rate Monitor for Your Workouts

Man checking heart rate with cell phone app in running group
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Heart rate monitors are in widespread use among all levels of exercisers these days. If you don't have one, you may feel that you are missing critical information needed to get the most from your workout. However, heart rate monitors aren't necessary for all exercisers.

Who Needs a Heart Rate Monitor

There are two groups of exercisers who, according to experts, should use a monitor:

  1. Exercisers who need to stay in a specific heart rate zone for safety reasons due to a medical condition.
  2. Competitive athletes who use the data for effective training.

For the rest of us, a heart rate monitor is just one more high tech gadget that is a mere convenience.

Who Benefits

While using a monitor is not necessary for everyone, it is a great tool for all exercisers. Even if used temporarily, it will help you learn how you feel at a given heart rate and you will become a better judge of your exercise tolerance and any limitations. Heart rate monitors are also useful for new exercisers because the device helps them set limits and monitor their progress.

A heart rate monitor is never a bad idea; however, it is helpful to pay attention to your body and not rely solely on the monitor for feedback. You should view the monitor as a tool to help you set your goals and establish a target zone.

For most exercisers, a good target zone is between 65% and 85% of your maximal heart rate. However, it is important to note that research has shown that target heart rates are different for men and women.

  • For men: Calculate your maximal heart rate simply subtract your age from 220. Multiply the result by 0.65 to determine the low end of your range, and by 0.85 to determine the high end of your range.
  • For women: Calculate your target heart rate by taking 0.88 and multiplying it by your age. Subtract this number from 206.

It is important to note that these calculations are the subject of ongoing research and there are multiple formulas that can be used to calculate your target range.

Heart Rate Monitors and Athletes

Competitive athletes can use heart rate information to gauge hydration levels, glycogen stores, recovery, race pace, fatigue and training goals over time. There are even a variety of books available on the subject, and if you intend to use a monitor for this purpose, you would do well to invest in such a reference. Heart rate monitors can be complicated. There are a variety of makes and models available and they often require some training to use properly.

How to Choose a Heart Rate Monitor

Advances in technology have made heart rate monitors more user-friendly. Most monitors use wireless technology that transmits heart rate data from a chest strap to a wrist monitor you wear like a watch or to a phone app.

The chest strap can take some getting used to but remains the most accurate way to measure your heart rate. Other designs use an armband.

Meanwhile, many fitness monitors and smartwatches use LED technology to detect your pulse at your wrist. This technology appears to provide less accurate data but is under constant development. It can be useful to compare a wrist-based heart rate with one provided by a chest strap monitor.

How the data is delivered to you during exercise is a top consideration. You may want to get alerts when you are in the right heart rate target zone and when you need to put in more or less effort. Depending on the design, you may get audible alerts or tactile taps on the wrist. If you must use an app rather than a wrist display, you have to consider how you will be carrying your phone.

A Word From Verywell

Many people like a heart rate monitor because it helps them stay interested in their exercise and they can monitor their progress on a daily basis. But such attention to detail isn't for everyone. Some exercisers are better off going out casually and listening to the feedback given by their body rather than the monitor.

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  1. Gulati M, Shaw LJ, Thisted RA, Black HR, Bairey merz CN, Arnsdorf MF. Heart rate response to exercise stress testing in asymptomatic women: the st. James women take heart projectCirculation. 2010;122(2):130-7. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.110.939249

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