What the best heart-rate monitor has

  • 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 or a licensed medical practitioner manually read your heart rate while you wear your monitor.
  • Comfortable sensor. 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 stiffer and may become uncomfortable. Armband sensors should offer enough placement flexibility so that they can be located for maximum accuracy and comfort.
  • 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.
  • 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 interval training is nearly impossible.
  • Continuous heart-rate reading. The monitor should display a constant reading of your heart rate so you can see 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 datatracking, 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.
  • Broad compatibility. Wireless heart rate monitors should support the devices and the apps you intend to use. Most exercise gear that can accept data from a heart rate chest strap or other sensor communicates on the 5 kHz band. For use with a smartphone or tablet, look for a Bluetooth heart rate monitor. Some also support ANT+, used by Garmin devices and some exercise equipment. Most wireless heart rate monitors support a wide range of fitness apps (both Android and iOS).

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 or fitness app 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, though few are actually waterproof. Don't plan on taking a Bluetooth heart rate monitor on a swim as Bluetooth signals don't pass through water very well.

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 ups the total cost. Wireless heart rate monitors upload their results to an app, which provides tracking as well.

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

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.

Can you swim with a heart-rate monitor? Technically, yes, at least with any heart rate monitor rated to be water resistant to 30 meters, and that includes the Best Reviewed Polar FT60 and Polar FT1, as well as the Timex Ironman Race Trainer (which is water resistant to 100 meters), Suunto Quest and others. 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, we also note complaints from others that report damage, fogging, etc. after swimming. Using a wireless heart rate sensor 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+ as well. ANT+ is compatible with some current Android smartphones, or you can buy an adapter for use with other Android phones or the iPhone. The Best Reviewed Polar H7 does not support ANT+, but other top choices, including the Wahoo TICKER, do.

Elsewhere in This Report:

Best Reviewed Heart Rate Monitors: If you want to keep track of your heart rate while exercising, these heart-rate monitors are top performers. All are accurate and easy-to-use, and some will work with your smartphone or with your favorite piece of exercise equipment.

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.

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.

Back to top