How to Use a Heart Rate Monitor

Heart Rate Monitor App
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Walking is pretty much a gadget-less sport. But one gadget can really help walkers get the most out of their walking workout — a heart rate monitor.

By knowing your heart rate during your walk, you can keep your workout at a fat-burning level, not exhaust yourself on long-distance walks, or pump it up for a threshold workout to build your aerobic capacity. Many models also display calories burned and help you time your workout.

Using a Heart Rate Monitor

To use a heart rate monitor, you must first know at what heart rate you wish to workout. Find your Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) and target heart rates using the heart rate calculator.

Now you can work out in different heart rate zones.

Put on the Heart Rate Monitor

When using a chest strap transmitter, the contacts need to be in moist contact with your skin. You can use water, spit, or products such as Buh-Bump Cream, which is an electrolyte gel just like they use in hospitals, to ensure good contact. Adjust the elastic strap so it is snug but doesn't interfere with taking a good deep breath. For women, it should go snugly under the breasts and bra. Now put on your shirt. If your model has a watch display, put it on your wrist.

Start Your Heart Rate Monitor

Different models turn on in different ways, some just by waving the watch display in front of the chest transmitter. Others are activated by a button. Note the readings — if they are erratic or show you must be either dead or running a sprint, readjust the chest strap for good contact.

Monitors may also pick up other people's transmitters if they are also wearing a heart rate monitor — so space yourself around others.

Care and Feeding of Your Heart Rate Monitor

  • The transmitter and wrist display are probably both water-resistant, but should be stored in a dry place and not kept in some non-breathable place — don't store it in a plastic bag or keep it in your gym bag with your sweaty clothes.
  • Clean the transmitter with warm soapy water and a soft towel after each use. Never use alcohol or a scratchy scrubber.
  • Batteries wear out after a couple of years and depending on the model you can send it in for a replacement or replace them yourself.
  • Replacements for the transmitter or watch display are available from the manufacturers for less than the whole unit price.

Buying a Heart Rate Monitor

You can buy a typical chest strap heart rate monitor with a wrist display. If you have a smartphone, you can buy just a Bluetooth chest strap to transmit the data to an app or to an activity monitor you are already wearing. Some activity monitors and smartwatches have LED-based pulse monitors built-in.

Features to Look for in a Heart Rate Monitor

I have used several different heart rate monitors. What I find essential is the heart rate, percentage of maximum heart rate, and the elapsed time. I also like models that alert me when I am over or under my target heart rate zone. Ease of use is also very important. I don't want to have to bring the instruction manual along on my workout. 

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.