Exercising in your target heart rate zone gets you the most bang for the buck out of your workout. But who wants to stop to take a pulse during a long run?
Heart rate monitor watches do the job for you. These monitors include a straplike transmitter that goes around your chest and a watch for your wrist that wirelessly collects and displays your workout data.
The best heart rate monitors track metrics such as speed, distance and location as well as heart rate. Many models include options to enter your height and weight to better tailor your information. Buyers also need to look for a long battery life, good memory capacity and the ability to measure a wide variety of heart ranges.
Doctors recommend exercising at 60 percent to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, also known as your target zone. This zone minimizes the risk of a cardiovascular problem or musculoskeletal energy caused by pushing too hard, while still providing enough challenge to improve health, according to the Cleveland Clinic. A simplified formula for measuring your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age.
A caveat: Heart rate monitors probably aren't necessary for many exercisers to hit this zone. The reason, said Brandon Alderman, a professor of exercise science at Rutgers University, is that how you feel usually matches your heart rate.
"If a person feels like they are exercising at moderate intensity, if you put a heart rate monitor on them their heart is going to say they're exercising at moderate intensities," Alderman told LiveScience.
Casual exercisers may be better served with fitness trackers that use accelerometers to measure movement, he said.
However, for athletes, people training seriously for marathons or half-marathons, or even a casual exerciser who would rather not go with their gut to stay in their target zone, heart rate monitors can be nice motivational tools, Alderman said. People strongly invested in their workouts are more likely to take the trouble to use the heart rate data to track their fitness from day to day, he said.
Video: How To Tell If You Really Need A Heart Rate Monitoring Fitness Tracker:
With so many heart rate monitors on the market, picking the best can be tough. LiveScience's sister site TopTenREVIEWS does in-depth research on consumer products, including heart rate monitors for exercise. Here are their top three picks.
The Polar RS100 ranked first among heart rate monitors for its intuitive design and useful features. This monitor comes with a wristwatch and a textile chest strap transmitter. It records up to 100 hours of workouts and has a battery life of two years. The monitor records a heart rate range of 15 to 240 beats per minute, a broad enough range to handle any fitness level. The only feature the Polar RS100 lacks is a GPS, meaning it does not track location.
Ease of use: TopTenREVIEWS found that Polar RS100's chest strap is easy to use. One nifty feature of this watch is that you don't have to push any buttons to see your heart rate in real-time during a workout: Simply move your wrist close to your chest and the watch will automatically display your data. There's a handy backlight feature for night running and an alarm that will chime if you fall below or above your target heart rate zone.
Help and support: Polar has an online product page with instructional videos, FAQs and a downloadable instruction manual. The company can be reached by phone or email, and the watch comes with a two-year warranty.
The Garmin Forerunner 110 is pricier than the Polar RS100, but includes a GPS and access to a free online training program called Garmin Connect, where you can manage your data and track your workouts for years. This watch can track up to 180 hours of workouts and has a rechargeable battery, a nice feature for those who don't want to take a trip to the jeweler's every few years to get a new battery installed. One disadvantage of the Garmin Forerunner 110 is that it is not waterproof, so triathletes may want to look elsewhere. Also, not every model of the watch comes with a chest strap included, so double-check before you buy.
Ease of use: This watch has all the bells and whistles, including alarms, multiple time zone settings, backlighting and GPS. It weighs only 1.8 ounces, and the chest straps come in different sizes for men and women. TopTenREVIEWS declared the functionality of this heart rate monitor watch "pretty amazing." The Garmin Connect service got high marks, too.
Help and Support: Online tutorials, a downloadable manual, and FAQs make the Garmin website a one-stop shop for learning to use this watch. However, TopTenREVIEWS found Garmin's technical support to be less than responsive.
With a price falling between the Polar RS100 and the Garmin Forerunner 110, the Soleus GPS 3.0 is a good option for those who want GPS functionality at a slightly lower cost. Like the other watches featured, the Soleus GPS 3.0 can tailor its measurements to your height, weight and age, and it includes alarms for when you leave your target heart rate zone. The battery on the Soleus GPS 3.0 is rechargeable, and the data can be transferred to your computer to make room for more.
Ease of use: Transferring your data from the watch to the computer is a breeze with an included USB clip. TopTenREVIEWS found the monitor user-friendly and packed with features that athletes will appreciate.
Help and support: This watch comes with a one-year warranty. Soleus provides tech help through their website and via phone.