Heart Rate Monitor


A heart rate monitor is a device that permits the measurement of a person's heart rate. It is often used when people perform exercises or other fitness activities. However, medical professionals also use them to monitor the heartbeat of a patient, possibly with a heart-related problem. The heart rate is the number of heartbeats that occur over a specific amount of time, such as one minute. Increasing the heart rate to a desired target rate—primarily based on age—over an extended period such as during exercise helps to maximize the fitness of the person. Thus, by maintaining a good exercise regiment and schedule, one can reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and plaque buildup in the arteries over time.


A man wears a heart rate monitor around his torso and wrist while exercising. Heart rate monitors help to gauge the intensity of an individual's workout.

A man wears a heart rate monitor around his torso and wrist while exercising. Heart rate monitors help to gauge the intensity of an individual's workout.

Over the long term, a heart rate monitor helps to determine if an athlete is overtraining or undertraining. It informs the user where improvement is needed in order to achieve maximum results. The American College of Sports Medicine states that it is very important to measure the intensity of exercise. The organization “…recommends that heart rate be monitored during exercise to determine the appropriate amount of exertion for the individual.”


Many people use heart rate monitors in order to determine their heart rate while exercising—what is called in “real-time” monitoring of the heartbeat. Such devices also measure such figures as average heart rate (over a specified exercise period), amount of time within a specified heart rate target zone, calories expended (burned), breathing rate, instantaneous and average speed, distance traveled (during the exercise period), and other such features.


The first heart rate monitor was a simple device that measured the heart pulse on the human body (such as on the wrist, neck or other such area) by counting the number of heartbeats per minute. In fact, before heart rate monitors were invented, athletes wanting to know their heartbeat rate would do just that: press their finger against a pulse point on the body while counting the number the heartbeats over a period of 15 seconds (and taking that number times four) or 60 seconds. Since heart rate monitors were first developed, they have become much more sophisticated in features, styles, and other characteristics.

In 1995, an early experiment was performed by Dr. James Rippe. The research, which was published in the journal Medicine, Exercise, Nutrition and Health, found that women who wore heart rate monitors during exercise were better able to control their heart rates than women who did not exercise and did not wear such monitors. Over a 12-week period, the women who exercised and wore heart rate monitors had reduced rates of anger, anxiety, depression, and fatigue compared to the other group of women. Over time, heart rate monitors have been shown to effectively help people stay healthy and fit because of its ability to inform people how to more effectively exercise.

Basic concept

Heart rate monitors work by using electrocardiogram (EKG) techniques that use, for instance, electrodes attached to a chest strap, which transmit the heart rate to a wrist receiver via telemetry (or, remote transmission of data). During an EKG, electrical activity of the heart is measured over a period of time with skin electrodes and recorded to a device for later analysis.

Many current models of heart rate monitors consist of a strap with a sensing device and transmitter and a receiver. The strap holds the measuring device and transmitter in place on the chest, wrist, arm, or other such area of the body. The receiver provides information to the user. Some heart rate monitors replace the receiver with a mobile phone as a way to relay gathered information. Others convert the information into sound so that it can be heard through earphones or headphones. Still other monitors place sensors in fabric so that is it less conspicuous. For example, women can have sensors placed within the strapping of an exercise bra. In all cases, a sensor detects each beat of the heart and relates that data onto some type of visual display or sound-generating device.

Heart rate monitors include accessories that allow the data to be transferred wirelessly or through a USB port to a computer or other such device. Many heart rate monitors also allow data to be uploaded to social websites such as Facebook.com . Application software (commonly referred to as applications or “apps”) are also available. For instance, Instant Heart Rate for iPhone and Android users is a very accurate way to monitor the heart rate. It works when the user places a finger over the device's camera for at least ten seconds. The user's heart rate is then displayed.

Although individuals and medical professions use heart rate monitors, some specific type of monitors are called machine monitors. These are incorporated directly into exercise machines such as elliptical machines, treadmills, and stationary bicycles. The heart rate is determined from the heartbeats sensed within the palms of the hands as users grasp the handles of such machines.


A heart rate monitor is relatively simple to use. Instructions are provided with the purchase of such devices. When heart rate monitors are used at the request of a medical professional, the attending doctor or nurse will inform the patient how to use such devices. Make sure that the instructions are clear and understandable before attempting to be monitored by such devices. The accuracy of the resulting data depends on the accurate reading of such monitors.


When using a heart rate monitor, make sure to stay within the healthy range for the heart, which is from 50% to 85% of a person's maximum heart rate. The maximum heart rate, according to the American Heart Association, is calculated based on age; specifically 220 — user age. For instance, someone who is 20 years of age would have a target heart rate range of 100 to 170 beats per minute with an average maximum heart rate of 220 beats per minute (220 — 20). Someone who is 60 years old has a target heart rate range of 80 to 136 beats per minute with an average maximum heart rate of 160 beats per minute (220 — 60). These are general guidelines and should be used only as estimates for one's own age bracket and specific physical condition.

Consult with a medical professional before starting any exercise program. If using certain prescriptions such as blood pressure medicine make sure to inform the doctor of any medicines being taken because they can affect the target heart rate. In the case of blood pressure medicine, it will lower the target heart rate and, consequently, the average maximum heart rate.

When exercising, always be cautious of warning signs that may develop such as breathlessness after only minor physical exercise or pain or pressure in the chest, arm, shoulder, or left neck during or immediately after any high-intensity exercise.

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Deposits that build up on the inner walls of the arteries.

When starting any exercise program, the lower range of the target zone (50%) should be attempted during the first few weeks. After the initial period has elapsed, slowly ease into the upper half of the target zone (around 75%). After six months or so of exercising, the maximum range of the target zone (85%) can be attempted with far less risk than if attempted earlier. Problems can be avoided and a much greater chance of having comfortable and productive exercise sessions can be achieved—all with the assistance of a heart rate monitor. However, as with any type of exercise, healthy benefits will be received whether at the low or high ends, or anywhere in the middle, of the target zone.


The use of a heart rate monitor is a good way to maximize the benefits of exercise. The regular use of exercise is an excellent way to reduce one's risk from health problems such as some types of cancer and cardiovascular disease. However, eating a healthy diet of nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats, along with a regular exercise routine is even more beneficial to maintaining one's health and fitness.


There are no complications associated with the use of heart rate monitors.



See also Electrocardiogram .



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Duncan, Michael, and Mark Lyons, eds. Advances in Strength and Conditioning. New York: Nova Science, 2009.

Hottenrott, Kuno. Training with the Heart Rate Monitor. Aachen, Germany: Meyer & Meyer Sport, 2007.

Mitchell, Debby. Fitness Zone: Heart Rate Activities. New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Plowman, Sharon A., and Denise L. Smith. Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness, and Performance, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.

Reiman, Michael P., and Robert C. Manske. Functional Testing in Human Performance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2009.


Burke, Edmund. “Precision Heart Rate Training.” Human Kinetics. 1998. http://www.humankinetics.com/products/all-products/precision-heart-rate-training (accessed January 18, 2017).

“Move More.” American Heart Association. https://healthyforgood.heart.org/Move-more (accessed January 18, 2017).

Sanders, April. “How Does a Heart Rate Monitor Work?” eHow.com . http://www.ehow.com/how-does_4597151_heart-rate-monitor-work.html (accessed January 18, 2017).

“Target Heart Rates.” American Heart Association. October 12, 2016. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/Target-Heart-Rates_UCM_434341_Article.jsp#.WIFTmiMrLUQ (accessed January 18, 2017).


American College of Cardiology, Heart House, 2400 N St., NW, Washington, D.C., 90245, (202) 375-6000, (800) 253-4636, Fax: (202) 375-7000, resource@acc.org, http://www.acc.org .

American Heart Association, 7272 Greenville Ave., Dallas, TX, 90245, (800) AHA-USA-1 (242-8721), http://www.heart.org .

William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.