What the best heart-rate monitor has

  • Bold display. The screen should be easy to read while training, featuring large, clear numbers. For night use, the display should have an adequate backlight feature.
  • User-friendly. The controls should be intuitive, not complicated, and easy to use during a workout.
  • Accuracy. It's impossible to maintain your target heart rate if your heart-rate monitor's reading is inaccurate. The best way to test it is to have a certified personal trainer manually read your heart rate while you wear your monitor.
  • Adjustable target zone(s) with alarms. At least one target zone should be adjustable, and all should have audible alarms to alert the user when his or her heart rate leaves the zone.
  • Stopwatch and chronograph. A stopwatch allows you to time your exercise, lap and recovery time. A chronograph feature let you time and record laps within the overall workout. Without a chronograph, tracking your interval training is nearly impossible.
  • Continuous heart-rate reading. The monitor should display a constant reading of your heart rate to determine if you're training at the right intensity.
  • Virtual trainer. This feature creates an exercise plan based on your profile and goals. The heart-rate monitor will tell you the appropriate intensity and duration needed each day to meet your weekly and ultimate goals.
  • Computer/web upload. The ability to upload saved data from the heart-rate monitor to a computer allows easier viewing and date tracking, as well as more memory for recording workouts. Many units with uploadable data let you post that information to a website for your own use or to share with friends.
  • Comfortable chest strap and wristband. You shouldn't notice the chest strap after a few minutes. Look for those that are made of cloth rather than plastic, which tends to be stiff and uncomfortable. The wrist unit should sit stationary, and the band should adjust to a snug but not too-tight size.
  • User-replaceable battery. The battery should be replaceable by the user, or at least a jeweler. Some heart-rate monitors still require the device to be sent back to the manufacturer when the battery peters out.

Know before you go

Do you need a virtual trainer feature? Experienced trainees can typically set their own workout goals based on their needs and fitness levels. That's more of a challenge for novices, however, who might be best served by a heart-rate monitor that can create a plan for them.

How often will you use it? Like all products, some heart-rate monitors are more durable than others. If you plan to wear your monitor on a daily basis, investing in a unit that can withstand the wear and tear of day-to-day activities is worthwhile.

Where will you use it? If you plan to run in harsh weather with your heart-rate monitor, it needs to be weatherproof and durable. Most are water-resistant to 30 meters, but swimmers should stick with a monitor that's rated for use in the water.

Do you want to track long-term progress? Some heart-rate monitors can upload training results to a website, which allows users to graph and track heart rates, workout times and calories long term. With some units, uploading data to a computer or website requires an optional upload module that typically costs about $50.

Do you want to calculate calories burned? If weight loss is your ultimate goal, you'll most likely want to track calorie expenditure after each workout. That's a capability of most, but not all, heart-rate monitors.

How hard a workout do you want or need? Training at different intensities and heart rates will produce different fitness results. To burn the most fat, experts at the International Sports Sciences Association recommend working at 55 percent to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is 220 beats per minute (bpm) minus your age. For example: If you're 25 years old, you should keep your heart rate between 108 and 165 bpm during exercise.

What's to come?

Heart-rate monitor manufacturers are taking notice of the rise of smartphones and adapting to provide products for that market. Apps that synchronize your smartphone with an accessory heart-rate monitor transmitter are already available. One such unit, the Scosche Rhythm (*Est. $100), consists of a Bluetooth armband pulse monitor and an iPhone app that displays heart rate, calories burned and more.

Back to top