Aerobic exercise is an important part of any fitness routine. It strengthens the heart, improves circulation, and burns body fat. In order to maximize cardiovascular activity, most experts say you should monitor your heart rate to stay in your target zone -- high enough to get a reasonable workout, but not so high that your heart is pumping dangerously fast.
The American Heart Association says the ideal target zone for most people is between 50 percent and 85 percent of their maximum heart rate. On average, that's 220 beats per minute, minus your age. This is only a guideline, however, and the AHA notes that certain medications can lower a person's maximum heart rate. They suggest talking to a doctor to determine your appropriate target zone, especially if you're just starting out with an exercise program.
A traditional heart-rate monitor consists of a chest strap and a wrist unit that resembles a watch. The chest strap includes a monitor that is placed at the solar plexus, just below the breastplate. This monitor wirelessly transmits a pulse reading to the wrist unit.
The simplest heart-rate monitors read and display your heart rate. More advanced monitors can calculate calories expended during your workout and keep records to show a progression. Some heart-rate monitors come packed with additional features, such as pedometers that track daily steps, and some can upload workout results to a website that lets you see long-term workout trends and interact with other users. Advanced monitors may have smart training or "virtual trainer" capabilities, setting your workout for you based on your personal information and goals.
Note that some manufacturers are starting to forgo chest straps in favor of wrist-based monitors that use LED lights to track how fast your blood is flowing. Also called optical heart-rate monitors, these devices have come under fire for being less accurate than chest straps. Expert tests have found they're fairly accurate when you're at rest or lightly active, but things can go downhill during high-intensity exercise -- especially interval training. Most recommend sticking with a chest strap if accuracy is your primary concern.
Bluetooth heart-rate monitors connect via wireless Bluetooth technology to your smartphone or another Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a GPS watch. That's where you'll be able to see your heart rate and any other recorded data. Since many exercisers already carry smartphones during their workouts -- often to listen to music, or sometimes as a safety measure -- they prefer tracking their heart rate this way. These heart-rate monitors are often compatible with a range of apps, seamlessly syncing your workout information and saving you the trouble of manually tracking your data.
If you're a more casual exerciser who is concerned about tracking data such as your step counts, calories burned, and sleep quality, you may want to forgo the more serious heart-rate monitors reviewed here in favor of a fitness tracker. While some fitness trackers do have heart-rate monitors (typically the slightly less-reliable wrist monitors mentioned above), the focus is more on overall wellness and less on closely tracking your heart rate to stay within a certain zone. Our report on fitness trackers can help you choose the best model for you. And if you want to add some exercise equipment to stay on track during home-based workouts, check out our reports on treadmills, exercise bikes and elliptical trainers.
Heart-rate monitors are largely being supplanted by fitness trackers meant for all-day wear as well as smart watches with fitness components. Still, there are a handful of quality sources detailing heart-rate monitor performance, ease of use and durability. Expert tests include those conducted by ConsumerReports.org, TomsGuide.com and CNET.com (though many of those tests also include fitness trackers). Also helpful are in-depth reviews from sites such as CNET, Wareable.com and PCMag.com as well as users' real-world reviews at Amazon.com, REI.com and BestBuy.com. We analyzed information from all of these sources to make our recommendations for the best heart-rate monitors and the best Bluetooth heart-rate monitors.
Reviewers say the Polar FT7 (Est. $70) is packed with enough features to satisfy most casual exercisers, but not so many that they inflate the reasonable price. They say the wrist unit is lightweight and versatile enough for most sports, including swimming. There are six colors to choose from, including black, purple and blue.
The FT7 nails experts' accuracy tests, notching top marks in tests that pitted it against an electrocardiograph. Extras include a Smart Calories feature, which calculates calories burned during your workout based on data such as weight, height, age, gender and activity level. EnergyPointer confirms whether your workout is burning calories or improving fitness. It can remember and summarize up to 99 workouts. The FT7 can also upload workout data to your computer and access the PolarPersonalTrainer.com site, but that requires the purchase of the optional Polar Flowlink adapter (Est. $35). The wrist unit can double as a watch that displays date and time; it also has an alarm and snooze feature.
Reviewers say the FT7 wrist unit and chest strap are comfortable to wear and simple to use for a variety of sports and activities. The FT7 is water-resistant for up to 30 meters and can be used for swimming. Unlike on some heart-rate monitors, users can replace batteries themselves, and Polar says the batteries should last up to 11 months assuming usage of one hour a day. Reviewers appreciate the large display, which also has a backlight, but some say it's too dim if you're working out in anything other than bright, direct light. This is a particular complaint with the black and red model, which displays light-colored stats on a dark screen. Most users say the FT7 is durable, with many reporting years of trouble-free use. Some report troubles with the chest-strap data transmitter, however. Polar backs the FT7 with a limited two-year warranty.
If you're a beginning runner who wants to keep tab on your heart rate, reviewers say the Garmin Forerunner 15 (Est. $110) is an excellent blend of value and features. There are several versions of the Forerunner loaded with more bells and whistles for elite runners, but they can also double -- and even triple -- the price. The Forerunner 15 is available in two sizes, large and small, in colors including black, red, teal and purple.
The Forerunner 15 pairs with a chest strap heart-rate monitor (but can also be bought without it). Reviewers say the heart-rate monitoring seems accurate, and the included GPS means runners can be confident that the distances tracked are reliable as well. Aside from heart rate, the Forerunner 15 tracks everything runners would expect, including time, distance, pace and laps. It also functions as an activity tracker by recording sleep quality, calorie burn and steps taken -- features the Polar FT7 doesn't have. It can remember only seven workouts, so if you want to track long-term trends, you'll have to be consistent about uploading workout data via the included USB cord to the Garmin Connect website. James Stables of Wareable.com calls the site "clunky," but also says it's "one of the most complete fitness apps we've ever seen." If you run indoors on a track or treadmill, you'll need the Garmin Foot Pod (Est. $50) to track distance and pace.
Reviewers say the Forerunner 15 is comfortable and lightweight. Jill Duffy of PCMag.com calls it "extraordinarily easy to navigate," praise that other reviewers echo. They like the large buttons and backlit display, which they say is easy to read. The rechargeable lithium ion battery is supposed to last about five days with activity tracking or about eight hours if you're using GPS, but some runners say they only got about five hours with GPS on -- not enough for some marathoners. It is water-resistant up to 50 meters and can be worn while swimming, but note that there is no mode to track a swimming workout. Though most reviewers say the Forerunner 15 is durable, a handful say it stopped working within a few months. Garmin provides a limited one-year warranty.
If you're just interested in tracking your heart rate and little else, reviewers say the Polar FT1 (Est. $37) delivers while keeping the price low. It's a basic, but cheap, good quality heart monitor.
Despite the Polar FT1's low price tag, reviewers say accuracy is excellent. Just like its more expensive sibling, the FT7, it gets top marks in experts' accuracy tests that pitted it against an electrocardiograph. You won't find much of note in the features department, however. For instance, it doesn't track calories burned or have the memory to store and summarize more than your latest workout. However, the FT1 does have settable target zones. That feature lets you set an intensity zone for your workout, and warns you with visual and audible alarms if your heart rate leaves 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 unit.
Reviewers say the FT1 wrist unit and chest strap are both comfortable to wear and simple to use for a variety of sports and activities. The FT1 is water-resistant for up to 30 meters and can be used for swimming. Users say the unit seems durable, the display is clear and the large numbers are easy to read. They also appreciate the simplicity of the one-button controls. However, batteries are not user-replaceable. This is covered during the FT1's two-year warranty period, but when it's out of warranty, many reviewers say it's simply not worth replacing the batteries once you factor in shipping.
If you already exercise with a smartphone, smart watch, fitness tracker or some other Bluetooth-enabled device, a Bluetooth heart-rate monitor could be a smart choice. These heart-rate monitors use wireless technology -- Bluetooth is the most common -- to send workout data right to your phone or other device. Some also include wrist units. Most are compatible with several popular fitness apps, making it easier to keep track of your workouts.
For most users, the Polar H7 (Est. $55) wireless heart-rate monitor is a versatile, accurate, inexpensive choice. It connects to most smartphone apps and is compatible with most exercise gear that's designed for use with a wireless heart-rate sensor. The chest strap is available in black, blue, or pink.
The Polar H7 gets experts' top rating for accuracy in tests that pitted it against an electrocardiograph. They also give it great marks for versatility and features. The H7 works with most iPhones and Androids, including the Samsung Galaxy. Like most Polar monitors, it also connects via Bluetooth with gym equipment that can accept data wirelessly from heart-rate monitors. One drawback: Bluetooth has very limited range through water unlike another commonly used wireless technology called ANT+. So even though the H7 is water-resistant, swimmers might be better served by another wireless heart-rate monitor such as the Wahoo Tickr, detailed below.
Ease of use is another of the Polar H7's strong points. Users say the chest strap, available in two sizes, is easy to position and comfortable to wear. Most also report little trouble pairing their devices with the tracker, though some grouse that it can take a little while. Users can change the batteries themselves, but some warn that the juice can drain quickly unless you remove the sensor from the chest strap between uses. Others say when you change the battery you might need to reset the sensor first by shorting the battery contacts to successfully re-pair with your smartphone. Most owners seem pleased with the build quality and reliability, though customer service gets mixed reviews. Polar backs the H7 with a two-year warranty.
The Wahoo Tickr (Est. $50) is similar to the Polar H7, but this wireless heart-rate monitor supports both Bluetooth and ANT+ wireless technology. That makes it compatible with a greater range of devices, including Garmin GPS devices and some additional smartphones.
Experts say the Tickr heart-rate monitor is accurate, and PCMag.com's Jill Duffy calls it "a good and reliable device." Like the Polar H7, the Tickr connects wirelessly with several health and fitness apps, including Wahoo's RunFit app. However, it doesn't connect with the range of gym equipment that the H7 does. Wahoo offers two other souped-up versions of the Tickr with additional features: The Tickr Run (Est. $80), which has a treadmill mode and tracks more running data such as stride and form, and the Tickr X (Est. $100), which adds built-in memory, cycling cadence and rep counting.
As for ease of use, owners say the Tickr is easy to set up, but like most similar devices, they report occasional problems pairing the device with their smartphones. They say the chest strap is comfortable, and the battery is user-replaceable like the one in the Polar H7. The Tickr has a one-year limited warranty. We give the H7 a slight edge for its ability to link to more exercise equipment, but if that's not a concern for you, the Tickr is certainly worth a look.
If you prefer an arm-based wireless heart-rate monitor, reviewers roundly praise the Scosche Rhythm+ (Est. $80). The Rhythm+ heart-rate monitor does not use a chest strap, but an armband. Unlike most arm-based heart-rate monitors, the band goes on a user's forearm instead of around the wrist. The band comes in red, orange, blue, green, pink and black.
Like many Bluetooth heart-rate monitors that don't use a chest strap, the Rhythm+ gets mixed reviews for accuracy. Users are divided over whether it's as accurate as a chest strap, but most seem to agree that it's better than heart-rate monitors worn on the wrist. The device "seemed accurate, based on other heart rate data I've collected over the recent years while exercising," says Duffy of PC Mag. Beyond heart rate, the Rhythm+ tracks stats such as calories, distance and pace. It connects to most Bluetooth-enabled smartphones and tablets. It also supports ANT+ wireless technology, used by Garmin devices, some smartphones and some exercise gear. Scosche doesn't have its own fitness app, but the Rhythm+ supports many third-party apps.
While several reviewers say the Rhythm+ is more comfortable than a chest strap, some say it's still not as unobtrusive as a wrist-based monitor. A few owners grouse that the cloth strap can get soaked with sweat and slide during intense workouts. Duffy calls the forearm placement of the Rhythm+ "awkward" and says the Velcro on the strap is "a magnet for dust bunnies and dog hair." On the bright side, she says the monitor was easy to turn on and pair with her phone. Most reviewers say the Rhythm+ maintains a reliable connection with their phones. It is waterproof up to 1 meter and can be used for swimming. The monitor has a limited one-year warranty.
If you're a runner who doesn't mind paying a premium for a sport-specific, feature-packed wireless heart-rate monitor, reviewers say the Garmin Forerunner 235 (Est. $330) is the way to go. Available in black and gray, black and red, and blue, the watch is lightweight and goes beyond workouts to become a full-fledged activity tracker that also adds a dash of smart-watch functionality.
The Forerunner 235 has a wrist-based optical heart-rate monitor that can track your heart rate all day. Experts note that optical heart-rate sensors are highly accurate when you're at rest or are lightly active, but they can lag during high-intensity exercise. This is borne out in tests by CNET.com's Dan Graziano, who found that the Forerunner 235's optical sensor was nearly as accurate as a chest strap during an easy run, but lagged during an interval workout. Moral of the story: If you're very concerned with accuracy, stick with the chest strap, but the built-in optical sensor is fine if you just want a baseline. If you're in the former camp, consider pairing the less costly Garmin Forerunner 230 (Est. $250) with a chest strap such as the Garmin Premium Heart Rate Monitor (Est. $45).
For the data-driven runner, the Garmin 235 tracks everything you would expect: distance, pace, time and heart rate. It has built-in GPS to track your routes. But it also features activity tracking that can give users a fuller picture of their daily activity by tracking steps, calories and sleep. Data can synced via Bluetooth with the Garmin Connect app or website. The unit has basic watch functions such as time, date and alarm, but adds music control and notifications such as email and text alerts when paired with your smartphone.
The Forerunner 235 is water-resistant to 50 meters, but experts caution that there are no swim-specific tracking features. Though it's meant mostly for running, it also has a bike mode and a multipurpose "free tracking" setting. Most reviewers like the large, color LCD display, but a few say it's too dim to easily read in lower light. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery reportedly offers good battery life; Graziano measured battery life at 11 hours with GPS turned on. Users say the unit is lightweight and the rubber strap is soft and comfortable enough for continuous wear. Garmin backs the Forerunner 235 with a one-year limited warranty.
If you can't skip the chest strap, or you want a more versatile Bluetooth heart-rate monitor that still has all the bells and whistles, reviewers say the Suunto Ambit3 Sport (Est. $270) is ideal for a wide range of activities. Available in white, coral, blue and black, the watch comes with an included chest strap.
Few reviewers report accuracy complaints regarding the Ambit3's chest-strap heart-rate sensor. The unit's GPS also "fared near the top of the heap" in tests by Jediah Porter at OutdoorGearLab.com. Like most high-end heart-rate monitors, the Ambit3 Sport can track runners' speed, pace, distance and routes, but it also has extensive swimming and cycling modes, as well as multisport tracking for triathletes and other activities. Data syncs with the Suunto MovesCount app and website, which Porter says is "easy to use and reliable" for tracking workouts. Note that if you're a serious hiker or climber who doesn't mind a bulkier unit, the Suunto Ambit3 Peak (Est. $360) [B00N1WXL28] has a built-in altimeter to track altitude gains.
The Ambit3 Sport is water-resistant to 50 meters. It has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, and reviewers say battery life -- up to 24 hours with GPS, according to Outdoor Gear Lab -- is admirable. The backlit LED screen is reportedly easy to read with large type, and the wrist unit itself is "elegant and intuitive," requiring users to perform more complex tasks on MovesCount, Porter says. Still, the watch is "far from dainty" on a woman's wrist, according to Elizabeth Palermo of LiveScience.com, and at 2.8 ounces, it's almost double the weight of the Garmin Forerunner 235. Some reviewers also report problems with pairing the Ambit3 and the heart-rate strap or their phones, but this is a common complaint for fitness devices.
The best heart-rate monitor has:
Do you want data on calories burned, steps taken, and sleep quality? If you're more concerned about your overall fitness level and want to monitor your habits all day, you may be better served by a fitness tracker than a heart-rate monitor. Many fitness trackers, which we cover in a separate report, include heart-rate monitors, though they tend to be wrist-based monitors that aren't as accurate as chest straps. If your focus is on staying in a certain intensity zone during exercise, stick with a heart-rate monitor that has a chest strap.
How hard a workout do you want or need? Training at different intensities and heart rates can help produce different fitness results. For instance, runners can benefit by increasing their endurance during training that stays between 70 and 80 percent of their maximum heart rate; going beyond that number for shorter periods of time can help them develop a bit more speed.
Be skeptical of the so-called "fat burning zone." You may have seen a chart on cardio gym equipment indicating that lower-intensity exercise burns a greater percentage of calories from fat versus the carbohydrates used as fuel during higher-intensity exercise. If your goal is to burn fat, it might be tempting to use a heart-rate monitor to ensure you're in this zone. However, experts warn that sticking solely to this zone can simply result in a lower calorie burn, making it harder to obtain the calorie deficit you need to lose weight.
Can you swim with a heart-rate monitor? Typically, yes. However, most manufacturers warn that touching any button while underwater can harm the display's water integrity, and while we see lots of feedback from users saying that they have had great success swimming with their heart-rate monitors, others complain of damage, fogging, and other complications after swimming. Using a wireless heart-rate monitor and sending data to a poolside device is another alternative, but keep in mind that Bluetooth does not work well under water. Instead, opt for a sensor that uses ANT+ such as the Wahoo Tickr (Est. $50).
The editors at ConsumerReports.org evaluate about a dozen chest strap-style and watch-style heart-rate monitors. Scores are based on accuracy, ease of use and versatility. Units are rated and ranked; however, results are available only to subscribers.
Prospero compares several heart-rate monitors and fitness trackers for accuracy against an electrocardiograph while sitting still, walking at a brisk pace, and running. The Polar H7 wireless heart-rate monitor came out on top, but there was more variance in results with wrist-based monitors.
Amazon.com lets users post reviews of heart-rate monitors they own. Some units attract hundreds or even thousands of comments, while others get only a handful. Many monitors score similarly, so it's easy to spot both the few that are standouts as well as the few that are more likely to disappoint.
This roundup details four of Wareable's picks for the best chest strap heart-rate monitors, four wrist-based heart-rate monitors and three fitness trackers with heart-rate monitoring. Blurbs are informative, but uniformly positive. Links to more in-depth, balanced reviews are included when available.
Sharon Profis tests five wrist-based heart-rate monitors against an electrocardiograph, finding a percentage of error up to roughly 10 percent at rest and nearly 60 percent during high-intensity exercise. However, technology has advanced in the past two years. More useful are CNET's in-depth looks at recent heart-rate monitors, found under the site's extensive "reviews" section.
This is the personal site of triathlete Ray Maker. There are lots of reviews here for gear for runners, bikers and swimmers, including a handful of heart-rate monitors. Products are not rated or ranked, but the write-ups are incredibly detailed.
PCMag.com features in-depth reviews of a few heart-rate monitors, listing pros and cons as well as considering other similar products. Other reviews at PCMag focus mostly on wrist-based fitness trackers aimed at more casual exercisers instead of heart-rate monitors, as well as smartwatches that have some fitness-tracking features.
While this roundup is includes a lot of crossover in fitness tracking, heart rate monitoring and GPS tracking, wrist-style heart rate monitors are well-represented. The products each get a thorough review, and are rated and ranked against each other.
As with the roundup at OutdoorGearLab.com, there is some crossover here into the smart watch/GPS watch category, but it's also a good resource for those who want wireless heart rate tracking. Each product gets a thorough review that includes features, comfort, ease of use and other qualifiers.
REI customers rate heart-rate monitors on a five-star scale, noting whether they would recommend the product for a friend. Reviews vary in helpfulness but tend to be a bit briefer than those at Amazon.com. Garmin, Suunto and Polar are the dominant brands here.
This site ranks several popular wrist-based monitors, but rankings are not based on first-hand testing by experts or real-world use by owners -- just features. Still, the site offers a handy way to compare features that are important to would-be owners.
At BestBuy.com, customers can post their opinions on products they've purchased. Heart-rate monitors are covered in different categories here, so a site wide search for heart-rate monitors might be needed to find various models. Some heart-rate monitors only get a few comments, others more than 100 reviews.