Finding the best heart rate monitors
Regular aerobic exercise is an important part of a healthy fitness regimen. It strengthens the heart, improves circulation and burns body fat. In order to maximize cardiovascular activity, most experts say that you should monitor your heart rate to stay in your target zone -- high enough to get a reasonable workout, but not so high as to get your heart pumping dangerously fast.
The experts at the American Heart Association (AHA) say that the ideal target zone for most individuals is between 50 percent and 85 percent of their maximum heart rate -- which is 220 beats per minute, minus their age, on average. That's only a guideline, however, and the AHA notes that certain medications can lower a person's maximum heart rate, and hence the target zone. If taking such medicines, they suggest talking to a doctor to determine the appropriate target zone -- and that's generally good advice, too, for anyone just starting out on an exercise program.
Types of heart rate monitors
The traditional type of heart rate monitor consists of a chest strap and a wrist unit that resembles -- and often also doubles as -- a wristwatch. The chest strap includes a contact monitor that is placed at the solar plexus, just below the breast plate, and wirelessly transmits a pulse reading to the wrist unit.
The simplest of these heart-rate monitors read and display the user's heart rate. More advanced units can calculate calories expended during the workout and keep records to show a progression. Some heart-rate monitors come packed with additional features and some models can upload workout results to a website, which can add a social component to your routine. Advanced monitors may have smart training or "virtual trainer" capabilities, setting your workout for you based on your personal information and goals.
You can also buy a wireless heart rate sensor on its own. These are designed to communicate with a smartphone or tablet via a heart-rate monitor app, or to sync with a computer built into compatible exercise equipment such as a treadmill, exercise bike, elliptical trainer and more. We cover all three of those types of stationary exercise equipment in separate reports.).
User reviews and expert opinion indicate that measuring your heart rate with a contact chest-strap sensor is the most accurate technique, but some heart rate monitors work differently. Some are worn on the arm or the wrist and use optical sensors to measure your pulse and, hence, your heart rate. Reviews for accuracy are mixed. The Scosche RHYTHM+ (Est. $80) scores well enough with experts and users for us to say that it is worth considering. The wireless Scosche heart rate monitor is worn on the forearm and syncs with a number of smartphone and tablet fitness apps to display heart rate, calories burned, distance, speed, pace and more.
Others, however, and especially heart rate monitors that are incorporated into the type of fitness trackers that are worn on the wrist, struggle when it comes to accuracy. CNET tests five such devices and finds that most suffer from inconsistent or inaccurate readings when benchmarked against a medical EKG machine. Two of the devices were off by more than 55 percent when measuring heart rate after running on a treadmill. So, if accurate heart rate tracking is your primary goal, you may want to consider a dedicated heart rate monitor. However activity trackers are still a great tool for counting steps, calories burned and more -- if you'd like to do that as well, head on over to our separate report on fitness trackers to see our recommendations for those.
Finding the best heart-rate monitors
For this report, we looked at top performing heart rate monitors (units that include the chest strap sensor and a wrist-worn display) as well as wireless heart rate sensors that send their data to a smartphone or to a computer on a compatible piece of exercise equipment. We consider performance, of course, as well as ease of use and reliability. We analyzed expert reviews, including feedback from sites run by or that tailor to runners, bikers and other athletes. We also looked at thousands of user reports posted at retail sites, including Amazon.com. The end result is our recommendations for the Best Reviewed heart rate monitors, as well as some other choices that are worth considering.
Best Heart Rate Monitors
From feature-packed to basic but accurate, these are the top heart-rate monitors
For those who take their workouts seriously, you can't go wrong with the Polar FT60 (Est. $100), reviewers say. The FT60 is accurate and packed with features. It doesn't have the chronograph ability found in the Timex Ironman Race Trainer (discussed below), but its extensive virtual trainer feature (something the Ironman lacks) is very well regarded. Called Star Training, this feature creates a weekly workout routine for the user based on his or her fitness level, activity level and profile data. The weekly plan consists of exercise duration and the necessary calorie target to meet each goal. The user can choose training goals such as improving fitness, maximizing performance or losing weight, and set workout intensities. The Star Training program evaluates your session and weekly performance, gives feedback and adapts the next week's workouts accordingly so you stay on track to meet your overall goals. You need to input your weight weekly for the most accurate results.
The FT60 can save up to 100 files for uploading to a computer or to Polar's online training site, PolarPersonalTrainer.com. However, that requires the purchase of an optional Polar FlowLink USB module (Est. $35). Other accessories include a GPS sensor (Est. $105) or a basic Foot Pod (Est. $85) for tracking speed, pace and distance. Like most current Polar heart-rate monitors, the batteries are user-replaceable.
The Timex Ironman Race Trainer (Est. $110) is another top choice. One of the Race Trainer's more popular features is a 50-lap chronograph for interval timing, something missing on the FT60. A chronograph combines a stopwatch with a regular watch, allowing for the recording of data such as heart rate per lap as well as overall. Tracking interval workouts would be next to impossible without it. However, the Ironman Race Trainer lacks the virtual training features found on the FT60 and you are left to your own devices when it comes to creating workouts, as none come pre-loaded. That might make the Ironman Race a better choice for experienced users than for novices.
The Timex can save up to 10 workouts in its memory, and you can upload data to a well-regarded fitness-training site, TrainingPeaks.com. However, data transfer requires an optional Data Xchanger (Est. $55) receiver, which plugs into a standard USB port on your computer.
Like the FT60, the Timex Ironman is packaged with a contact heart-rate sensor chest strap. Reports indicate good accuracy, though a couple of reliability complaints do surface in the user reviews we spotted. Initial set up can prove vexing, some say. Also, though water resistance is rated to 100 meters -- more than most heart-rate monitor displays -- that water resistance comes with a caveat. Timex notes that pressing any button while underwater will negate the watch's water resistance, and we saw user reports of fogging after a swim. That limitation holds true with most heart-rate monitors. For more information, see the discussion on the What to Look For page.
The Suunto Quest Running Pack (Est. $250) is another good option. In addition to the Suunto Quest heart rate monitor, the running pack includes a foot pad and a wireless upload link, which eases the pain of the higher price for those who would buy those accessories anyway. The Suunto Quest performs great on all fronts, reviewers say, syncing well with the chest strap and foot pod. The unit is well built and rugged, say testers at FitnessElectronicsBlog.com. After a thorough and extensive evaluation, they didn't even notice the monitor or chest strap because it's so "soft and comfortable."
The Quest has a stopwatch feature for interval timing plus a unique tapping interval timer; users need only tap the watch face while training to record a lap time. The tap sensitivity is adjustable, as are many other features of the monitor. It also functions as a standard digital watch with time and alarm capabilities. When training, the watch reads and displays real-time heart rate, heart-rate zones, arrows to indicate heart rate relative to target zones, suggested recovery time and more. The LCD is backlit and large, making it easy to read on the go.
One major advantage of the Suunto Quest is the inclusion of a wireless computer uplink. The Move Stick Mini USB adapter plugs into a PC or Mac so users can wirelessly sync their heart-rate monitor to upload data to Suunto's training community, MovesCount.com. The site allows Suunto heart-rate monitor users to create training programs, upload their workout data and view progress in graphical form. They can also connect or communicate with other owners.
The foot pod included in the Running Pack is used to measure distance, speed and cadence. Once calibrated, the pod is very accurate, reviewers say.
Cheap heart-rate monitors
The heart-rate monitors above are loaded with extras that dedicated athletes will find valuable. However, a more basic heart-rate monitor does away with those bells and whistles in exchange for a lower price. That's the only trade-off with high-quality cheap heart-rate monitors, since they are every bit as accurate as the pricier models noted above. A cheaper monitor also might be a better choice for novices as they don't exact a steep learning curve to master their use.
Good-quality heart-rate monitors don't get much cheaper -- or much more basic -- than the Polar FT1 (Est. $50). However, reviewers say that accuracy is excellent nonetheless. You won't find much of note in the features department, although settable target zones are an exception. That feature lets you set an intensity zone for your workout, and warns you with visual and audible alarms if you leave that zone. The FT1 also uses Polar's OwnCode technology to cut down interference from other gear for more reliable communications between the chest strap and wrist-mounted display.
The Polar FT7 (Est. $70) is a step up in price and in features. Extras include OwnCal, which calculates calories burned based on the user's data (weight, height, age, gender, and activity level). EnergyPointer graphically confirms if the effect of the workout is to burn calories or improve fitness. Unlike the FT1, the FT7 can upload workout data to your computer and access the PolarPersonalTrainer.com site but, once again, that requires the purchase of the optional FlowLink adapter. Expert and user reviews are solid, and the FT7 is one of the top rated heart rate monitors in one independent comparative review.
Elsewhere in This Report:
Wireless Heart Rate Monitors: These wireless heart rate sensors are compatible with most smartphones and tablets, and can work with a variety of fitness apps. Some can even send data to the computers built into exercise gear. Chest strap and arm band heart rate sensors are discussed.
Buying Guide: Not sure which is the right heart-rate monitor for you? Editors discuss the key features to look for to help you find the perfect heart-rate monitor for your budget and your needs.
Our Sources: These are the user, enthusiast, and expert reviews we consulted to find the most-recommended heart-rate monitors. Sites are ranked by their expertise and helpfulness.