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How important is using a heart rate monitor when exercising?

Jonathan Penney
Fitness Specialist

Heart rate monitors are great tools to have and to use. If you are able to check your heart rate then you can simply do that periodically throughout your workout. However, if you are using a heart rate monitor to stay within a certain zone—i.e. 60 to 65 percent of your max heart rate—then having a monitor would make life much easier than having to check your pulse. The choice is truly yours, but it never hurts to have one present.

If you have been working out for a some time, then more than likely you have created a good cardiovascular base for yourself. A heart rate monitor will help take your program to the next level. The most important part of any fitness program is getting feedback on your progress. This feedback is used to help you adjust your workout program so you keep progressing (weight loss or improved cardiovascular condition) and ensuring you don’t hit a plateau. A heart rate monitor is one way to get this type of feedback. The problem is that the formulas that most people are introduced to don’t work for everyone. This means that a formula may have you training too hard or not hard enough. If you are using a heart monitor, you will need to do one of two things.

  1. Get a VO2 assessment done at a local fitness center. This assessment determines your heart rate zones based on your fitness level and genetics, not just age which most formulas use.
  2. If you are not able to do a VO2 test, use the most basic heart rate formula, 220-age. This formula is very conservative and will help you get started. Use 65 percent (for low) and 80 percent (for high) of 220-age to begin, then make adjustments in the zones based on how you feel. Once you have found your personal heart rate zones, using a heart rate monitor becomes very useful to help you determine and achieve the intensity you want in each workout.

Most experts agree that, in order to get the maximum benefits from aerobic exercise, you will want to vary your routines so that you remain challenged. A heart rate monitor can then help you to track the intensity of your effort to make sure you stay within certain heart rate parameters.

Of course you can do a ten second count while taking your pulse (wrist pulses are usually the best area to use) however, doing this repeatedly, especially when you are sweating and trying to put in a good effort can be a bit cumbersome and annoying. You can invest in a heart rate monitor, which typically has 2 components—a strap to put around your chest under your shirt, and a wrist component that looks like a watch. These models give you constant readings that are easy to see. More expensive models may also offer features like a pedometer, stopwatch, heart recovery measurements, beeping alarm when you go above a certain heart rate, backlight for visibility.

One of the reasons so many Americans are overweight is because they aren't training in the right heart rate zone. We have been taught to exercise at a fixed or target heart rate. But it doesn't work for most people, so they are getting less fit and more fat every year. People need to learn a new way of working out by wearing a heart-rate monitor (HRM) and training within multiple zones.

Fat is burned in all the heart rate zones; it's the burn rate that's the key factor. A heart rate monitor serves as a guide to make sure you train according to the demands of your workout in conjunction with your target heart rate. Besides, an HRM is more accurate than taking your pulse from your neck or wrist.

If you are just beginning to train, use a heart rate monitor to be sure that you are not overtraining. Your HRM can keep you at 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate so you don't overdo it. After a few months of training, your HRM may reward you by sending you the message that your resting heart rate has dropped several beats per minute.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.