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Heartbeat monitors have been around for decades. Polar introduced the first wireless wearable heartbeat monitor—the Sport Tester PE2000—in 1978, but it wasn’t until 1982, when Polar introduced the Sport Tester PE3000, that users could view and analyze heart rate data in real time, thus ushering in the era of using heart rate data to objectively analyze health and performance.
Despite heartbeat monitors being widely used by athletes, it wasn’t until recently, with the advent of optical heartbeat sensors, fitness trackers, and smartwatches, that heart rate data truly became available to the masses.
Why use a heartbeat monitor? Your heart rate tells you a lot about your workout, and can be a key piece of information to track fitness, progress, and changes over time. It’s also a critical indicator of how challenging your workout is, as the same workout metrics impact each athlete differently. This can help you target your workouts for fitness, fat-burning, or other goals.
Optical Versus Electrical
Electrical heartbeat monitors, also called ECG (electrocardiography) monitors, measure the electrical signals that control expansion and contraction of the heart via a chest strap. According to Polar’s Chief Strategy Officer, Marco Suvilaakso, “high-quality chest straps...are still superior in providing the more reliable and responsive HR data versus optical sensors.”
Optical, or PPG (photoplethysmography), sensors shine an LED light through the skin and record the changes in blood flow from the pumping of the heart. Because they are dependent on blood flow to register heart rate data, they are prone to imprecise readings for a variety of reasons. Suvilaakso cautions that muscle tension when gripping the handlebar, as well as cold weather, can restrict blood flow in the wrist, and bumps from the road can send little shocks to the wrist that disrupt blood flow and cause inaccurate readings. Devices with optical sensors need to fit as snugly as possible, and the farther up the arm they sit (on your forearm or bicep, for example), the better the readings will be.
These days, smartwatches and fitness trackers are mostly Bluetooth-enabled, and many have their own companion apps and analysis software, like Garmin Connect and Polar Flow. Some devices, like the Suunto 9 Baro, measure heart rate via optical sensor and can connect to a Bluetooth heart rate strap, like the Wahoo Tickr X, for a higher level of accuracy. But not all heart rate straps are Bluetooth-enabled. Some, like the Garmin Softstrap Premium, broadcast only an ANT+ signal.
Heart Rate Variability and ECG
Some heart rate monitors and fitness trackers now measure HRV (heart rate variability). HRV is a measure of the millisecond deviations from a regular heartbeat, and is quickly replacing resting heart rate as the gold standard for determining how rested or fatigued you are. If you’re training for an upcoming event, and especially if you are balancing much more than just training in your life, look for a heart rate monitor that measures heart rate variability. It’s an incredibly helpful metric for balancing work, family, and training.
Devices that can perform an ECG, like the Withings Move ECG, can help detect early signs of heart conditions like AFib (Atrial Fibrillation), but they present a double-edged sword. You can be lulled into a false sense of security if nothing appears to be out of order. Dr. Neal Stansbury, MD, an orthopedic specialist at VSAS Orthopaedics in Allentown, PA (also a former professional cyclist who battled a heart rhythm disorder), says these home readings “can be helpful in that it alerts a person that a problem may be present, as long as the person doesn’t try to self-diagnose.” While having access to this technology 24/7 may make you feel like you have all the information you need, Dr. Stansbury cautions “if you feel as though something is wrong, regardless of the monitor, seek help from a doctor.”
How We Selected
We’ve come up with a variety of heartbeat monitors, but the reality is there is no definitive best, only the one that’s best for you. We included devices that measure heart rate via a chest strap for when precision matters most, as well as optical sensors for athletes who would rather not wear a chest strap. For many people, the comfort of ditching a chest strap and the ease of wearing only a device on your wrist is worth the slight drop in precision, so we made sure to include a wide range of options.
With that in mind, find our current top picks for the best heartbeat monitors below. And if you want a device that provides lots of extra features along with measuring your heart rate, check out our favorite fitness trackers.
Suunto 9 Baro
Insanely Long Battery Life
Battery Life: 120 hours in Ultra mode, 25 hours in Performance mode
Best For: Athletes on extended trips
Listing the Suunto 9 as a heartbeat monitor undersells its capabilities, but this watch does have both an optical heartbeat sensor and the ability to connect to a Bluetooth chest strap for greater accuracy. This professional-level watch has an astounding battery life—up to 25 hours in Performance mode and up to 120 hours in Ultra mode—and gives you real-time notifications on remaining battery life, allowing you to change modes on the go so you don’t run out of juice before the end of your workout.
Wahoo Tickr X
Compatible With Other Devices
Style: Chest strap
Battery Life: 500 hours
Best For: Athletes tracking on multiple devices
This chest strap features both ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity. It can also store up to 16 hours of data for future download and analysis. The strap’s treadmill mode tracks speed and distance while running in place and is compatible with dozens of third-party apps. It runs on a CR2032 battery and comes with a soft, adjustable strap.
Scosche Rhythm+ 2.0
Reliable Bluetooth Connectivity
Battery Life: 24 hours
Best For: People who want a happy medium between watch and chest strap
The Rhythm+ 2.0 is an ANT+ and Bluetooth-enabled armband that reads heart rate data via optical sensors. Connect the armband to bike computers, smartwatches, smartphones, and more than 200 apps to record and share your workout data—just use it exactly as you would a chest strap. The neoprene band is easy to adjust and comes in two sizes—small and large—as well as a variety of colors. This version has seen major upgrades in battery life, from 8 hours of tracking between charges to 24 hours.
Scosche Rhythm 24
Store Your Workout Data
Battery Life: 33 hours
Best For: Athletes who want an easy-to-use, armband-style monitor
The Rhythm 24 takes everything from the Rhythm+ and turns it up...to 24. The extended-life battery can track workouts continuously for 24 hours and run for a claimed 33 hours before requiring a recharge. Like the Rhythm+, the 24 is compatible with ANT+ and Bluetooth-enabled devices, but with the Rhythm 24, you can leave your devices at home and the Rhythm 24 will record and store your data.
Twelve South Action Sleeve 2
Get a Better Reading From Your Apple Watch
Battery Life: N/A
Best For: Apple Watch users who don’t want the device on their wrist
The Twelve South Action Sleeve 2 isn’t a heart rate monitor on its own, but rather a sleeve that’s compatible with Apple Watches that offers a more secure connection to your forearm or bicep for increased accuracy. Simply remove the normal straps from your Apple Watch and snap the face into the sleeve when it’s time to work out. Then continue using your favorite exercise apps and listening to your favorite music services without worrying about jostling the watch.
Apple Watch Series 6
The Do-It-All Device
Battery Life: 18 hours
Best For: Athletes who prioritize connectivity
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include the Apple Watch Series 6 on this list. It does a little bit of everything and measures your heart rate through an optical sensor. Now, you can take ECG readings through the ECG app, and using the Apple Watch Series 6 with GPS and cellular has the added bonus of allowing you to leave your phone behind when you work out, while retaining the ability to record all of your data and maintain full connectivity out on the road.
Fitbit Charge 5
Tracks All-Day Heartbeat and Calorie Burning
Battery Life: 7 days (varies with use)
Best For: Low-key tracking of all-day output
The Charge 5 is a slim and sleek activity tracker that reads heart rate data via an optical sensor, uses Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone, and is compatible with more than 200 fitness apps. Automatic activity recognition means the watch begins recording the second you start your workout. It also tracks all-day calorie burning and sleep, and, when paired to your phone, will display calls and texts. For those who hate to constantly charge their devices, the claimed battery life of seven days is a nice touch, though this varies with usage. This version has a brighter daylight face than previous versions, making the readouts easier to read outdoors.
Garmin Softstrap Premium Heart Rate Monitor
Machine-Washable ANT+ Heartbeat Strap
Style: Chest strap
Best For: Athletes with ANT+ tech looking to add heartbeat data
Battery Life: 1 year
This heartbeat monitor from Garmin is a pure, stripped-down heart rate strap. It’s ANT+-compatible only, and will pair to any device with ANT+ capabilities. The soft strap is easy to adjust, comfortable to wear for long hours, and machine washable—simply remove the plastic heart module that’s held in place via two snaps.
Polar Vantage M2
Battery Life: 30 hours
Best For: Athletes who love to analyze data
The Vantage M2 features Polar’s Precision Prime technology for reading heart rate. It combines skin-contact readings with optical sensors to make wrist-based heart rate measurements more reliable and less susceptible to false readings, according to Polar. It also comes packed with other features such as continuous heart rate reading, sleep and activity tracking, and Polar’s Training Load Pro software for analyzing your workouts.
Coros Pace 2
Reliable GPS-Enabled Location Services
Battery Life: 25 hours (with GPS)
Best For: People who want navigation and heartbeat monitoring
The Coros Pace 2 is a high-level training tool designed with serious backcountry users in mind. It has optical sensors to read heart rate data, and can also pair to an ANT+ or Bluetooth heartbeat strap for more accurate data. Along with heart rate and an impressive battery life, the watch features location services via GPS, GLONASS, and BDS satellites, plus an accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, and barometric altimeter. The Coros app can analyze workout metrics and offer technique feedback, and the watch is waterproof down to 50 feet.
Record ECG Readings
Battery Life: 30 days
Best For: Heart-health conscious patients
The Withings ScanWatch allows you to record an ECG reading from your wrist for analysis by a trained specialist. If you feel an episode occurring, Withings expects you to place your fingers on the watch case, and in 20 seconds it records an ECG. The Health Mate companion app sends a notification if you should consult your doctor, and lets you easily share the readings with your specialist, although if you are already working with an Electrophysiologist for a heart disorder, you likely have an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) that’s already doing this for you, as well as controlling the episodes. It’s noteworthy for the fact that a test you formerly had to go to a doctor’s office for can now be taken by a watch on your wrist.
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