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.
Elsewhere in This Report:
Best Heart-Rate Monitors: Whether you want a simple heart-rate monitor to make sure your heart stays in the right zone while exercising, or a sophisticated device that can double as a personal trainer, these are the top choices.
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.