A heart rate monitor is an electronic device that is worn on the body and provides real time information about the state of your heart.
Heart rate monitors today take several different forms. Some are strapped around the chest and send information to a readout device; be that a smartphone, smartwatch or fitness tracker. Others are integrated directly into fitness trackers or smartwatches and worn at the wrist.
The best heart rate monitor watch or fitness tracker will provide generally accurate information without requiring the chest strap. For this and other reasons they’re quickly becoming the predominant type of heart rate monitor. Below we’ve compiled our list of the best heart rate monitors for 2020.
1. Polar FT1 Heart Rate Monitor
A true heart rate monitor that comes with its own readout device the Polar FT1 is the complete package. The chest strap is comfortable and easy to adjust, the readout is large enough to be read without breaking out the magnifying glass and the device is water resistant. So you don’t have to worry about getting caught in the rain wearing it.
What we like: We like the easy-to-read display. A big plus for older folks. The fact that it’s highly water resistant means you don’t have to worry about sweat or light rain. The chest strap typically provides very accurate heart rate readings. And the single-mindedness of the device has a certain kind of appeal as well.
Flaws: The connection between the chest strap and wrist monitor is sometimes erratic when running hard.
2. Garmin HRM Run
Garmin has elbowed its way to the head of the line when it comes to fitness trackers and heart rate monitors. The HRM Run is a true heart rate monitor that wraps around your chest and provides highly accurate readings that it sends to any late model Garmin fitness tracker. These kinds of chest straps are not typically a big hit with the ladies. But this one may win a few converts.
What we like: The real-time heart rate monitoring on the HRM-Run is among the best you’ll get. We like that you can set it to any one of a half dozen different types of stride. And that the strap is pretty comfortable around the chest. Even on hot days.
Flaws: Need to pair it with another device in order to view the data it collects. It would be nice if that read out device came as part of the package.
3. Letsfit Tracker & Heart Rate Monitor
Letsfit is neither the biggest name nor the most expensive heart rate monitor on our list. But it may just be the best value. It possesses as accurate a heart rate monitor as you’re going to find in a fitness tracker. Plus all the other advantages that this type of device brings to the table.
What we like: We appreciate the generally outstanding quality of this heart rate monitor. For a fitness tracker monitor it’s quite accurate. We also really like the look of the device. It’s sleek and modern and offers a number of color choices.
The fact that the monitor integrates seamlessly with other components of the fitness tracker gives it a leg up on standard chest straps. It’s also light, affordable and reasonably water resistant.
Flaws: The clasp has a fragile feel to it. We’d treat it with kid gloves just to be safe because it’s not replaceable.
4. Wahoo Fitness Tickr Heart Rate Monitor
The Wahoo Fitness Tickr provides some of the most accurate heart rate readings you’ll get in this type of device. It then sends them to the smartwatch or smartphone of your choice. There the data can be put to use in any one one of more than 50 health related apps.
What we like: It does a good job capturing generally accurate heart rate information in a variety of conditions. We like that there are myriad ways to put that data to use in other, related apps. And we appreciate the reasonable price point.
Flaws: The device has a tendency to slide down the arm. Also, it doesn’t store data itself. It’s just a transmitter.
5. Fitbit Charge 3 Fitness Activity Tracker
The Fitbit Charge 3 is a fitness tracker and something more. It’s also a highly competent heart rate monitor and right up there with the best heart rate monitor watch you’ll find. It’s sleek and comfortable, durable and reliable and it will keep an eye on your ticker whether you’re riding your exercise bike or taking a nap.
What we like: The Charge 3 is sleek, tough and accurate. It charges fast and holds a charge for up to 8 hours when the heart rate monitor is engaged. We really like the fact that it’s fully waterproof. So you can also monitor your heart rate in the pool. In addition, it provides call and text notification and interacts seamlessly with scores of other apps.
Flaws: The lack of a date on the clock face is kind of a head scratcher. Also, don’t expect too much from the weight tracking function.
6. MorePro ECG Monitor
The MorePro ECG Monitor has a lot of bells and whistles. But the most important of those are the generally dependable heart rate and blood pressure monitors. For a glorified fitness tracker it’s pretty impressive. And for the price, even more so. The icing on the cake with this value winner is that it’s 100% waterproof. So feel free to go for a dip with it on.
What we like: For an inexpensive fitness tracker-like device the MorePro ECG Monitor does a good job providing reasonably accurate, real-time heart data. If you don’t have a lot to drop on a heart rate monitor this is one device you should consider.
Besides one-touch heart rate data it also tracks distance and calories burned and will let you know if you have a phone call.
Flaws: The design isn’t going to set the world on fire. And the band can get irritating once you start sweating.
7. Garmin Forerunner 235
The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a perfect example of the convergence taking place in the fitness tracker/heart rate monitor business. You could call this the Forerunner Heart Rate Monitor or the Forerunner Fitness Tracker and either title would be correct. It’s also a good example of how fitness trackers have closed the gap between them and traditional heart rate monitors.
What we like: The heart rate readings are generally reliable. It syncs easily with any late model smartphone. And if you’re not using the heart rate monitor it will run continuously for 9 days on a charge. We also like that the device doubles as a quite passable smartwatch.
Flaws: It’s a tad bulky. And the white background has to go.
8. Scosche Rhythm+ Heart Rate Monitor Armband
If you’re intent on making sure you have the most accurate heart rate data you can gather you’ll want to consider the Scosche Rhythm+ Heart Rate Monitor Armband. This one wraps around your forearm and sends its precious data to any Bluetooth enabled smartwatch, smartphone or fitness tracker you care to pair it with.
What we like: We like the fact that you can sync it with virtually any late model smartphone, smartwatch or fitness tracker. We appreciate the IP67 rating. Which means it’s ready for the pool. And we appreciate the accuracy of the heart rate readout you get with this device. Higher than most wrist-oriented monitors.
Flaws: It seems they didn’t put the same amount of thought into the band that they put into the rest of the device. It’s a bit sponge-like and can get uncomfortable on hot days.
9. Polar OH1
We always appreciate it when a manufacturer provides multiple ways to benefit from a product. That’s one reason the Polar OH1 found a place on our list. While you’ll need to supply your own readout device they give you two ways to capture your heart rate. Either through a forearm strap or a discrete, waterproof device that captures the heart rate at the temple.
What we like: You’ll get reliably accurate heart rate readings that can be synced with any Bluetooth or ANT+ device. We applaud the fact that they provide two ways to use the device; either around around the forearm or against the temple. And it’s fully waterproof for swimmers.
Flaws: This is a small device so the activation button is necessarily small too. Some people will take exception to that. Also, it doesn’t hold a charge all that long.
10. Mio Alpha Heart Rate Monitor & Sportswatch
Bringing up the rear of our list is the Alpha Heart Rate Monitor & Sportswatch from Mio. This is a true heart rate monitor watch and has been designed primarily with that in mind. Frankly, the design leaves something to be desired. Which is why it finds itself in the #10 position. But there’s no arguing with the effectiveness. Which is why it’s on the list at all.
What we like: This is a sports watch that happens to provide continuous heart rate monitoring without a chest strap. We like that it provides 20 hours of continuous monitoring on a single charge. And we appreciate the large, clear readout.
Flaws: Like a lot of other monitors it tends to increase in accuracy as your heart rate increases. Also, it has a face only a mother could love.
Who Needs a Heart Rate Monitor?
Anyone who comes from a family with a history of heart disease should consider wearing a heart rate monitor. Ditto for anyone who currently suffers from any type of cardiovascular problem or who has had a heart attack in the past. Beyond that you get into matters of personal, and perhaps even professional, preference.
By ‘professional’ we’re talking about pro athletes who need to obtain a competitive edge but need to do so responsibly. It’s reckless and potentially dangerous to just push oneself without getting useful feedback about how your body is handling the stress. Unfettered training can actually lead to a condition known as ‘Athlete’s Heart’ (1) where the heart becomes enlarged due to constant training.
While the condition itself is not thought to be dangerous it is sometimes mistaken for more serious conditions. And that can lead to complications resulting from unnecessary treatments. So it’s in an athlete’s interest to keep an eye on what’s happening with their heart. Which makes using a heart rate monitor a wise decision.
How We Ranked
In order for a device to make our list it needed to be reasonably accurate. That is, within what is accepted as the upper end of accuracy for these devices today. Chest strap heart rate monitors routinely win the accuracy award. But in the past couple of years the humble fitness tracker and the heart rate monitor watch have made impressive progress in regards to accuracy. The best of those made our list.
Battery life is another important issue because you don’t want the heart rate monitor quitting on you in the middle of a bike ride, swim or aerobics class. When it came to fitness trackers and smartwatches we also wanted to see a rich feature set. After all, if they’re not going to provide the bells and whistles then you might as well just get a simple chest strap. And of course, whether we’re talking about chest strap devices or wrist based monitors that sync with your smartphone, ease of connectivity is another thing we took into consideration.
Lastly, we can’t ignore the importance of robust product support. These are, after all, complex high-tech devices. As such, should yours have a problem you can’t open it up yourself, shake a couple of wires and get it going again. You need to have it looked at by highly trained professionals in possession of the latest diagnostic equipment and the expertise to interpret that diagnostic data. So, warranties were/are important to us when making our choices.
Heart rate monitors let you keep an eye on your heart rate. They allow you to stay on top of cardiovascular performance (2) and let you know when you may be pushing things a bit. The information provided by the heart rate monitor will enable you to get more from your workouts and do so without putting your health at risk. Sure, you could always get a pretty accurate read on your heart rate by checking your pulse manually (3). But in order to do so you’d need to stop what you’re doing for a minute or two. And that is going to interfere with the flow of your workout.
Heart rate monitors are like personal trainers. Having a heart rate monitor watch tracking your cardiovascular performance in real time is like having a personal trainer standing next to you on the treadmill. The role of the trainer is to provide feedback, guidance and motivation. All things the heart rate monitor watch or app are great at. You’ll be able to make both short and long term adjustments to your workout based on the feedback the monitor is providing. And you’ll be motivated to even better results during future workout sessions.
Heart rate monitors eliminate stop and go workouts. We touched on this a moment ago but it warrants some more discussion. In the not too distant past if you wanted to know your heart rate while you were exercising you had to stop and check your pulse. In theory this would give you the information you needed. In theory. In fact as soon as you stopped exercising your heart began to slow down. Not a lot. But enough to affect the reading. On top of that stopping and starting during an exercise routine is not a good idea. In fact, it can be downright counterproductive (4). Also, it’s not always easy to talk oneself into starting back up again.
Heart rate monitors let you find your cardio sweet spot. You can determine that optimal range in a number of ways. The NIH is a fantastic resource for heart rate data (5). Should you want a more personal approach your doctor can help you determine your optimal heart rate. Whichever route you choose knowing the correct range for your body will enable you to guide yourself to that workout sweet spot where physical progress lies.
Just keep in mind that there is no single ideal heart rate for all human beings. According to the American Heart Association the average person’s ideal heart rate is typically between 50 to 85% of their maximum heart rate (6). With 50% representing the low end for moderate intensity workouts and 85% the high end for high-intensity workouts. Keep in mind too that if you have a family history of heart disease (7) it is imperative that you discuss the matter in full with your doctor and abide by their recommendations.
Heart rate monitors are great motivators. While some people don’t have a problem motivating themselves most of us tend to find ways to avoid things we find unpleasant. And working out, especially if you haven’t done it in a long time, can be pretty unpleasant at first. A heart rate monitor can provide the kick in the pants a person needs to get beyond excuse making (8) and take action. Being able to see in real time the effect physical exertion has on your ticker is a deceptively powerful experience. It can and often does cause people to start thinking about the health of their body. And not just the state of their career.
Heart rate monitors allow you to track your progress over time. Most of the better heart rate monitors store a week or more of data you can refer back to. In some cases the information will be available right on your heart rate monitor watch. In other cases it will be available through a smartphone app. This historical data enables you to see how your cardiovascular efficiency has improved over time. Or not improved over time if that is the case. Either way, having this information at your fingertips can help you devise productive but attainable goals moving forward. And setting goals is crucial to long term success (9).
Heart rate monitors enable more effective workouts. But before you take to the road or the CrossFit box it’s suggested you take a stress test (10). This will allow you to determine your current cardiovascular situation and establish a maximum heart rate. You can then plug the resulting data into your heart rate monitor watch or app and use it to enable highly effective workouts. At the same time if the data coming from your heart rate monitor indicates you’re putting too much stress on your heart you’ll be able to ratchet things back in a controlled manner.
Heart rate monitors are a smart choice. If you spend any time at the health club you’ll see lots of people working out. Some look like they’re ready to take on the world. Others look like they’re counting the minutes until they can leave. A lot of times people don’t get anything from their workouts simply because they have no measuring stick. A heart rate monitor can provide that measuring stick. And if you’re thinking you might look a bit silly wearing one keep in mind that they’ve become pretty much standard gear for everyone from corporate execs to presidents (11). If it’s good enough for them it’s probably good enough for you.
Q: Is there more than one kind of heart rate monitor?
A: Yes, there is more than one kind of heart rate monitor. Commercial chest strap monitors are scaled down versions of devices doctors have used for decades. They send their data to a reader at your wrist or a smartphone app. The heart rate monitor watch both reads your heart rate at the wrist and displays the information on its face. Most every fitness tracker will also have a heart rate monitor component among its available features. Which type of monitor is best for you is something only you can decide. It can’t hurt to discuss the matter with your physician.
Q: Are chest straps more accurate than wrist straps?
A: Yes, chest strap monitors are generally considered to provide more accurate information than wrist-based monitors (12),(13). Chest straps also have a leg up on heart rate monitors embedded in fitness trackers (14). That said, the best heart rate monitor watch or fitness tracker should provide information that is accurate enough that you can use it to improve your physical performance and overall health. The wrist-based monitor is also far more convenient and typically far more comfortable. Especially for women.
Q: What’s the best way to determine my maximum heart rate?
A: There are a number of different ways to determine your maximum heart rate. Certainly the best way is to pay a visit to your doctor and let him or her run a stress test. If, however, you’re more of a do-it-yourself type of person you can try what is called the Fox method. This is a very simple formula where you deduct your age from the number 220. So, if you are 52 your maximum heart rate according to the Fox method would be 220 – 52, or 168. Just bear in mind that research indicates such simplistic methods may not be terribly accurate (15).
Q: Can I just use a heart rate monitor watch?
A: The fact is many smartwatches and fitness trackers now incorporate heart rate monitors that are nearly as accurate as purpose-built chest straps. Some go so far as to offer an electrocardiogram feature. Some of these ECGs (16) are very sophisticated and have even gotten the seal of approval of the FDA. So, the answer to the question is yes, you can just use a heart rate monitor watch, smartwatch or a fitness tracker with an integrated heart rate monitor if you choose. Which is why we included a mix on our list.
Q: How can I tell if I’m in my heart rate target zone?
A: Once you have established your maximum heart rate it’s not difficult to establish a heart rate target zone. As we mentioned above that zone is typically 50% to 85% of the maximum heart rate you’ve established. So, if your maximum heart rate is 168 then your target heart rate zone would be 84 – 143. If you are just starting to exercise after a long period of dormancy then it’s advisable to stick to the lower end of that range. And your heart rate monitor can ensure you do. Over time as you become more accustomed to the physical exertion you can gradually work your way up toward the higher end of the scale. Just don’t rush things.
Q: Are there any side effects to wearing a heart rate monitor?
A: About the most serious side effect most people experience from these devices is irritated skin. That’s particularly true for chest strap heart rate monitors, where irritation can be a particularly acute problem for women. While it’s not impossible for women to wear chest strap monitors (17) it’s likely to take some getting used to. Beyond that the only potential side effect might be an allergic reaction to the strap material. Although that seems highly unlikely.
Q: Will heart rate monitors work with all kinds of exercise?
A: No, because many heart rate monitors are not waterproof. Therefore, if you take your non-waterproof chest strap or other monitor into the pool with you you’re going to be shopping for a new one shortly after you dry off. So before you spend your hard earned money on this type of device ask yourself how you’re going to be using it. If you’re a swimmer make absolutely sure any monitoring device is completely waterproof. Not just water resistant.
Q: Which is better ANT+ or Bluetooth?
A: ANT+ is a low power wireless technology that has been around since 2004 (18). It is widely used within the fitness industry for treadmills, stationary bikes and the like. It’s roughly analogous to Bluetooth but has some technical differences that are too complex to get into here. Smartphones, wrist-borne heart rate monitors and fitness trackers most often use Bluetooth. So if your heart rate monitor uses ANT+ and you want to sync it with your smartphone you’ll probably need an adapter.
Q: Are heart rate monitors expensive?
A: Heart rate monitors are no different than any other type of product on the market. Some are downright cheap, while others can set you back quite a bit. The most expensive heart rate monitors tend to be those that are incorporated into things like smartwatches. Waterproof heart rate monitors are also more expensive to make and so are going to retail for more than other monitors. Of course, companies also trade off the strength of their brand name. So a monitor produced by a globally recognized brand is likely to cost more than one produced by someone you’ve never heard of. Even if there isn’t a big difference in quality.
Q: What’s the best way to clean a heart rate monitor?
A: It will depend on the type of device you have. If yours is a chest strap monitor you’ll want to make sure you wipe down both the chest strap transmitter and the wrist receiver after every use to remove sweat and dirt. The straps can be cleaned by using warm water and some mild detergent, rinsing them thoroughly and letting them air dry (not in direct sunlight). If your heart rate monitor is incorporated into a smartwatch or fitness tracker you’ll also want to wipe it down after every use. If that device is waterproof then feel free to wash it with a clean cloth dipped in warm water.
Q: If the battery dies when I’m using it is all the data lost?
A: While we’ve heard tales of people losing their data because the battery died this shouldn’t happen with any high-quality device. Engineers are pretty clever people and the ones who design heart rate monitors make sure that just before the device shuts down that it saves any unsaved data. But keep in mind that if your chest or forearm monitor is a transmitter only then it is not designed to save data under any conditions. Only to send that data to another device for display and perhaps storage.
Q: Is a heart rate monitor a waste of time?
A: The fact that anyone can take their pulse at any time (19) makes some folks question the need for an elaborate high-tech heart rate monitor. But while it is possible for just about anyone to obtain an accurate heart rate with little effort there are still situations that call for something more. If you’re in the middle of a session on your exercise bike for instance, you don’t want to have to stop just to get a heart rate. It’s much easier to simply glance at your wrist. It’s the same with runners or folks out for a walk. If you have a history of heart problems you need to get exercise to keep your heart strong (20). But at the same time you can’t push things too far. The heart rate monitor provides you with real-time data that enables you to shift gears quickly if you need to.
Today you have more ways to monitor heart health than ever before. That includes standard chest strap monitors, smartwatches and fitness trackers that now offer integrated heart rate monitors as a standard feature.
Those with a history of heart problems should consider wearing one of these devices as a matter of course. For others they’re more convenience than necessity. But a valuable convenience to be sure.
Whether you’re training for the Boston Marathon or just getting in some time on the exercise bike knowing what your heart is up to can be useful information. At the very least it can help you devise a more effective workout. And who knows, it may wind up saving your life.
For cpoe.org’s #1 recommended heart rate monitor, click here.