The best heart-rate monitor has:

  • Accurate readings. 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. If you're serious about accuracy, stick with a monitor that uses a chest strap. Experts say chest-strap monitors are more accurate during high-intensity exercise than optical wrist-based monitors.
  • Comfortable sensor. After no more than a few minutes you shouldn't even notice that you're wearing a heart-rate monitor. Look for chest straps made of cloth rather than plastic, which tends to be stiffer. Wrist units should have soft rubber wristbands that are flexible enough to be worn in a spot that offers maximum accuracy and comfort.
  • User-replaceable battery. The monitor's 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, which can leave you without your monitor for a while. It also means you'll be paying shipping costs.
  • Adjustable target zones with alarms. At least one target heart-rate zone should be adjustable, and all should have audible alarms to alert you when your heart rate leaves a certain zone.
  • Continuous heart-rate reading. The monitor should display a constant reading of your heart rate so you can see whether you're training at the right intensity.
  • Web-based data storage. The ability to upload saved data from the heart-rate monitor to your phone or computer allows easier viewing and tracking, as well as more memory for recording workouts.
  • Compatibility with other devices. Wireless heart-rate monitors should connect to the devices and apps you plan to use. Most exercise equipment that can accept data from a heart-rate monitor communicates on the 5 kHz band. For use with a smartphone or tablet, look for a Bluetooth heart-rate monitor. Some wireless heart-rate monitors also support ANT+, another wireless technology used by Garmin devices and some exercise equipment. Most wireless heart-rate monitors support a wide range of fitness apps on Android and Apple smartphones and tablets.

Know before you go

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).

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Heart-Rate Monitors | Bluetooth Heart Rate Monitors | Our Sources

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