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3 Reasons Why the Use of a Heart Rate Monitor Is Important

heart rate monitor

The heart rate monitor is an important tool.  It helps to give important data to determine the efficiency or lack of efficiency of the cardiovascular system.  It monitors the number of times the heart beats per minute and then you can use that data to determine things like – how long it takes for the heart to return to its resting heart rate: how long you are in your target heart rate zone: and how many calories are burned during a cardio session.  Why is this information important?

  1. Monitoring resting heart rates daily can provide a window into external stressors such as overtraining, prolonged stress (over triggering of sympathetic system), sleep deprivation, dehydration and illness. According to the American Heart Association the greatest stressors on the heart are high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating.
  2. Monitoring target heart rates gives the user an idea of the cardiovascular exertion of their exercise protocols.
  3. Using a blended average of the heart rate during a work session can give a general idea of how many calories are burned supporting weight loss goals.

1. Resting Heart Rate

A good resting heart rate is an indicator of good heart health and fitness and typically falls between 60-80 bpm for the average person.  According to the American Heart Association a healthy resting heart rate ranges from 60-100 bpm and a resting heart rate above 100 bpm is dangerous and defined as tachycardia (See AMA article).

By taking daily reads of the resting heart rate using a heart rate monitor it gives the user a powerful tool.  Diligent tracking of spikes in the resting heart rate can be a helpful diagnostic.  When spikes occur in a healthy resting heart rate then the user can review activity leading up to the spike to discover what caused it.  Some typical causes of a spike could be excessive coffee, lack of sleep, overtraining, psychological stress or the onset of illness.

Here are 3 strategies to consider to reduce your resting heart rate.  The quicker the heart returns to its resting rate the greater the efficiency and health of the heart.

  1. Consider modifying your diet moving away from refined carbohydrates and sugar.  (link within link to intermittent fasting).
  2. Consider establishing a good sleep pattern tapping into the body’s circadian rhythms.  When the sleep cycle is disrupted or inconsistent it makes it difficult for the body to function efficiently.  See NIH article on Circadian Rhythms.
  3. Consider learning how to utilize meditative breathing.  The breath is a powerful tool that can be harnessed to bring down the heart rate preventing a huge cortisol jump from the adrenals that sets a negative chain reaction off in the body.

2. Target Heart Rate

Your target heart rate gives you a guideline for the intensity of your exercise on the cardiovascular system.  A good, simple way to determine your maximum target heart rate for your training efforts is to subtract your age from 220.  The number identified becomes the maximum target heart rate and is considered the heart’s 100% effort.  See sample table below.


Name

Age

Height

Weight
100% Max

50%-60%

60%-80%

80%-90%
Connie
39
5’3”
148lbs
181
91-109
109-145
145-163
Ron
48
5’9”
175lbs
172
86-103
103-138
138-155
Betty
61
5’2”
264lbs
159
80-95
95-127
127-143

Working within different heart rate ranges provides different health benefits.  There are two kinds of cardio activity – aerobic and anaerobic.  Aerobic activity indicates that oxygen is involved as a fuel for the activity.  Anaerobic activity indicates that oxygen is NOT involved as a fuel for the activity.

  • 50%-60% Range – This is the range in which the body begins to use oxygen and fatty acid as primary energy sources for the activity.
  • 60%-80% Range – In this range the body begins to utilize glucose for energy in addition to oxygen and fatty acids. In the 60%-70% range you are in the fat burning zone.  When you reach the 70%-80% range you are in a cardiovascular conditioning zone.
  • 80%-90% Range – In this range the body taps into stores of glucose called glycogen to fuel activity. This range is good for interval training using burst cardio and then returning to the lower target heart rate range.

The 60%-80% range is the prime range for cardiovascular training.  The 50%-60% range is a good initial start point for those who are completely untrained or coming off sickness.  Both ranges are aerobic.  The 80%-90% range is utilized by athletes who achieve higher intensity, shorter duration muscular contractions using more intense conditioning protocols.  This range is considered anaerobic and is used for interval or burst cardio sessions.  For more information on burst cardio see Cardiovascular Training Plan.

Working within the prime range is where an average trainee will gain the greatest benefit.  In our work with obese folks we found that the 60%-80% range was easily achieved when they walked at a normal pace.  They didn’t need to run or beat themselves up.  Just moving their mass by walking was enough to trigger a sufficient elevated heart rate to assist them in their conditioning and weight loss goals.

3. Blended Average Heart Rate

Heart rate monitors only indirectly estimate calories expended during certain types of exercise.  For greatest calorie counting accuracy you must be able to include VO2 max along with HR max, VO2 max, gender, age weight and HR rest.  The VO2 max measures the maximum amount of oxygen the body utilizes during intense or maximal exercise. It is measured as milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight.

Does that mean that the estimate of calories expended is not useful unless you know your VO2 max? This is not necessarily true. If you are consistent in monitoring your activity using a heart rate monitor the calorie data gathered is accurate unto itself. Combine this information with a structured nutrition plan to manage weight loss goals. Typically it takes 3,500 calories burned in a week through exercise to lose a pound of fat. It is important to know generally how many calories you are taking in so you can find the tipping point where your metabolism works for you and starts to burn bodyfat stores.

Which Heart Rate Monitor is Best for You?

The heart rate monitor market is flooded with a myriad of options these days. In terms of technology there are two ways to go - chest strap monitoring and optical sensor monitoring. Overall optical sensor monitoring is primarily preferred because of its incorporation into fitness trackers. Prior to your purchase here are some things to consider:

1. What is your spending limit?

Generally, most heart rate monitor/fitness trackers cost between $75-$250. If you pay less than $75 you will find mediocre accuracy which defeats the purpose of tracking. More expensive options with a GPS feature are tailored toward athletes and exercise enthusiasts and may not be necessary.

2. What type of activity are you monitoring?

What sport do you participate in? Swimmers will want a waterproof tracker, but keep in mind that not all water-safe trackers actually track swimming. Runners will probably want a watch that shows time, distance, pace, and lap time, at the very least. Cyclists have even more considerations. There's a difference between tracking how many miles you pedal and calories you burn versus monitoring your power and cadence.

3. What style of monitor fits your goals?

Chest Strap Monitoring

Chest strap heart rate monitors measure electrical signals generated by your heart when it contracts.  Because of its direct contact over the heart a chest strap tends to be more accurate. The downside of the chest strap is ease of use and comfort. If not wrapped tightly around the chest it can easily slip out of place and is difficult to reposition while moving. The chest strap is primarily used by runners and cyclists, but is not practical for long-term monitoring of resting heart rate.

See blog on technology accuracy

Optical Sensor Monitoring

Optical wrist sensor monitors are the most common pulse sensors. Heart rate data is measured using photoplethysmography. This is a process of using small LED lights to refract off of blood flow to determine pulse readings. There can be periodic connectivity issues with the watch that cause a slight lag in measuring spikes in heart rates. Overall, this is a far more comfortable way to monitor heart rate especially for long-term monitoring of resting heart rate.

Where are you at in your fitness goals?

Consider adding a heart rate monitor to your gym bag or your life.  Whether you are an active athlete or an average person trying to shed body fat this is an essential tool for physical transformation and overall health.

Would you lift weights without knowing the poundage? Why do cardio without knowing your intensity?

Which chest strap gives you the best bang for your buck?

These two options ranked the highest on PC magazines list for 2019 and 2018.

Built in memory stores heart rate data from one training session that can be transferred to Polar Flow or Polar Beat App.

Enhanced battery life of 400 hours of operation time on a user replaceable battery.

Water resistance up to 30M makes this band suitable for swimming.

Built in memory stores 16 hours worth of workout data. If you record more than that without syncing then the unit will start deleting the oldest workouts first to free up memory.

Battery life: The CR2032 ion batter has a life up to 12 months.

Water resistance up to 5M which makes this product marginal for swimming.

Which optical wrist sensor gives you the best bang for your buck?

The Apple watch leads the way in optical wrist sensor technology and has two affordable options that not only include heart rate data, but also sleep data.

Improved algorithm: Better measure of calorie burn and resting heart rate with 24/7 heart rate tracking.

Training versatility: Choose from 15+ exercise modes like run, bike, swim, yoga, etc. This watch helps you set goals and get real time stats during your workouts.

Battery life: Up to 7 days (varies with use)

Swim proof and water resistance: Up to 50 M.  This allows you track swims and even wear in the shower. Connecting to smartphone GPS gives real-time pace and distance.

Improved algorithm: Get 24/7 continuous heart rate tracking in this slim design. Easy reboot solves syncing problems without deleting data.

Workout zones: Use zones to find the right workout intensity for your goals these include: Fat Burn, Cardio, and Peak.

Battery life: Up to 7 days (varies with use)

Syncing: Syncs stats wirelessly & automatically to computers and 200+ leading iOS, Android and Windows devices

18 Comments

  1. Kwacha

    Hi-thank you this information is very useful I have been looking for this information though I do understand cm and kg but looking at the figures make more sense .i have enjoyed your post very educative

  2. Deepika

    Hi Stacy, that is a load of information and information that is extremely vital. I have always wondered about the heart rate monitor and Oxygen monitor that come pre-loaded with the mobile phones – how accurate are those or are they just gimmicks to sell the phones. What are your thoughts?

    • Stacy Gallagher

      The heart rate monitors are accurate unto themselves. Each company – polar, fitbit, etc- has their own proprietary algorithm. What I found was that the Polar H10 was only off by about 1-2 bpm where the fitbit can be off as much as 22bpm with an average of 3-4bpm when compared to an actual EKG. If you consistently use a HRM for activity then you can work around some inaccuracy. The technology has come a long way in the last 10-15 years. My hubbie, Marty Gallagher, has been a fitness writer for almost 20 years and was a huge proponent of the HRM before Polar really knew how to use the heart rate data. Now it is a huge trend. Please let me know if you get this comment at stacygallagher70@gmail.com. Thanks for the comment.

  3. hong

    Very informative and interesting article. Hear monitor is a very important tool as you’ve stated in your article. I was a nurse for at the IMCU for few years, and the heart monitor is a vital tool for or job. I love the fact you lists several heart monitor tools to purchase and the helpful information to go along with them. I appreciate the work.

  4. Ramandeep

    Hello Stacy
    Your post is full of wonderful information, so well explained. My father in law went through heart attack last year and luckily he survived. I think heart rate monitor is a great product and I will bring this to his notice. Thank you for sharing

    • Stacy Gallagher

      What a great Christmas present a heart rate monitor would be! I have several older personal training clients (60-75) who use their monitors religiously. It gives great data and a person such as your father-in-law could start in a 50% range. Please feel free to contact me at stacygallagher70@gmail.com if you have any additional questions.

  5. jeffrey16201

    Interesting I stumbled upon your article on reasons to monitor your heart rate, I was Xmas shopping online and one of the recommended gifts for seniors was a heart monitor.

    I did not purchase a heart monitor for the seniors on my Xmas list, I did not think they would use the gift but what is your opinion on seniors using a heart monitor as a Xmas gift?

    • Stacy Gallagher

      I actually think it is a great idea!  My general personal training demographic is the 40-80 group.  For older folks it gives them a frame of reference as to the intensity of the work that they do whether weight training or cardio.  I would probably recommend a fitbit for a senior because of the ease of use.  However, the accuracy is going to be about 5 beats off.  The upside is that the watch is accurate unto itself so the user can see trends in spiking and resting heart rates.   

  6. Rebecca

    This is a highly educational review of the heart, heart rate and importance of the heart rate monitor. I need to know more about this. I only focus on my systolic and diastolic pressure and kind of disregard the heart rate. I know this is wrong as at one time my cardiologist emphasized that I should pay attention to my heart rate. Based on your review, my resting heart rate falls within the normal limits so I am not worried. But now I know the importance of paying attention to this when I check my stats. I am a bit more informed now than I was before. Thanks to you.

    • Stacy Gallagher

      Hey there Rebecca,

      Thanks for your comment.  I am glad to hear you have a resting heart rate that falls within the normal range.  A heart rate monitor would help to give you regular stats not only on your resting heart rate, but measure the exertion to the heart during physical activity.  A good resting heart rate falls between 50-75 while the average goes up to 100.  Adding exertion to the heart whether progressive resistance or cardio on a regular basis helps to change an average resting heart rate to a good resting heart rate.  

  7. Tony

    Hi, Stacy,
    Thank you for exploring the topic so extensively! Now I am aware of the main types and brands of heart rate monitors. My workout pressure is average. Could you advise and share with me what would be your choice for a heart rate monitor?

    Thank you!

    • Stacy Gallagher

      Thanks for the read! I think for the average person the fitbit is the way to go. It has the most versatility and comfort compared to the chest strap. The optical sensor can have periodic connectivity issues, but if you are tracking activity on a regular basis this is not a big impediment.
      Thanks,
      Stacy

  8. Tara

    Hi Stacy, great post. This clearly defines why it is so important to regularly check your heart rate and to use a heart rate monitor. Its quite useful to have links to the available recommended products right on the post. Thank you

  9. Charlie

    I have been using heart monitors for years I really enjoy using them and its been instrumental part of my current success they keep me motivated and on track, great article and hope more people get one.

  10. Alexis

    Hi Stacy. This is an excellent read regarding the importance of heart rate monitor.
    I’ve been using HRM chest straps, activity trackers, and sports watches for several years. Although they are not 100% accurate, they have been significantly improved. The heart rate monitor is indeed a great tool to help you adjust the intensity level of the exercise to get the most out of your physical activity.
    Thank you.

    • Stacy Gallagher

      Thanks for the comment! Heart rate monitoring technology has come a long way over the years. Accuracy was a real problem in the early Polar days when they dominated the market. The watch would cut off once it got below 60bpm. Not very helpful if you are trying to determine heart rate stats for a 24 hour period of time. Now there are a myriad of options from multiple manufacturers providing the public with tons of choices.

      Thanks again,
      Stacy

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