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Do You Need a Heart Rate Monitor?

While not necessary for all exercisers, some will benefit.

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Updated May 16, 2014

Heart rate monitors are in widespread use among all levels of exercisers these days. If you don't have one you may feel that you are missing critical information to get the most from your workout. However, heart rate monitors aren't necessary for all exercisers. There are two groups of exercisers who, according to experts, should use a monitor:
  1. Exercisers who need to stay in a specific heart rate zone for safety reasons due to a medical condition.
  2. Competitive athletes who use the data for effective training.
For the rest of us, a heart rate monitor is just one more high tech gadget that is a mere convenience.

While using a monitor is not necessary for everyone, it is a great tool for all exercisers. Even if used temporarily, it will help you learn how you feel at a given heart rate and you will become a better judge of your exercise tolerance and any limitations. Heart rate monitors are also useful for new exercisers because the device helps them set limits and monitor their progress.

A heart rate monitor is never a bad idea. However it is helpful to pay attention to your body and not rely solely on the monitor for feedback. You should view the monitor as a tool to help you set your goals and establish a target zone. For most exercisers a good target zone is between 65% and 85% of your maximal heart rate. To calculate your maximal heart rate simply subtract your age from 220. Multiple the result by 0.65 to determine the low end of your range, and by 0.85 to determine the high end of your range. For more information about training zones see How to Design a Personal Exercise Program. Competitive athletes can use heart rate information to gauge hydration levels, glycogen stores, recovery, race pace, fatigue, and training goals over time. There are even a variety of books available on the subject, and if you intend to use a monitor for this purpose, you would do well to invest in such a reference. Heart rate monitors can be complicated. There are a variety of makes and models available and they often require some training to use properly. For a review of heart rate monitors, please read the Guide Picks section.

Many people like a heart rate monitor because it helps them stay interested in their exercise and they can monitor their progress on a daily basis. But such attention to detail isn't for everyone. Some exercisers are better off going out casually and listening to the feedback given by their body rather than the monitor.

Advances in technology have made heart rate monitors more user friendly. Most monitors use wireless technology that transmits heart rate data from a chest strap to a wrist monitor you wear like a watch. The chest strap can take some getting used to and some new designs are attempting to eliminate the chest strap altogether. This technology appears to somewhat less accurate data. However, this trend toward improved user comfort will drive likely the future designs.

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