Which heart rate monitor is right for me?

Portable heart rate monitors come in all shapes and sizes, but choosing the right one depends on your needs and budget. 

  • Some people with heart conditions like atrial fibrillation need portable EKGs to track whether their medicines are working.
  • There are several portable EKG options available today including smartphone apps and smartwatch add-ons.
  • Wrist-based activity trackers are the most popular form of heart rate monitor today and can help you optimize your workout.


Whether you’re at the gym, the grocery store or the office, it seems every wrist in sight has a fitness tracker strapped around it. These trackers — which measure heart rate, steps and a variety of other vitals — have been a hot trend for some time now.

Although wrist-based trackers seem to be the most popular type of heart monitor today, there are a variety of different devices available to measure heart rate. Choosing the right tool depends on your personal preferences, price range and how you plan to use it.

Read on to learn more about the different types of heart rate monitors and how you can decide which one is right for you.

Why do I need a heart rate monitor?

Chances are, you probably don’t need a heart rate monitor unless you have been diagnosed with a heart condition and your doctor has asked you to track your heart rate and rhythm. People with atrial fibrillation, for example, may need a portable heart monitor to see whether their medications are working.

Aside from tracking a heart condition, wearable heart monitors can be useful for anyone trying to reach a target heart rate while exercising. Understanding your target heart rate can help you determine whether you’re exercising too much or not enough. This can be especially important for someone new to exercise or joining a new fitness program, such as Providence’s Heart to Start.

How do I determine my target heart rate for exercise?

Your target heart rate during moderate exercise should be 50-85% of your maximum heart rate, according to the American Heart Association. Vigorous exercise should bring your heart to 70-85% of your maximum heart rate.

To figure out your maximum heart rate, take 220 and subtract your age. So, a 40-year-old person has a maximum heart rate of roughly 180 beats per minute (bpm). That person’s target heart rate during moderate exercise would be 90-153 bpm.

Here’s a helpful guide for determining and tracking target heart rate.

Heart rate monitors for exercise

Wearable fitness trackers are the go-to option for monitoring your heart rate during exercise. In addition to heart rate monitoring, most options today also include step tracking, stopwatch features and sleep monitoring.

Wrist monitors

Activity trackers for the wrist are the most common way people track their heart rate today. These track your heart rate by using LED lights to measure how fast blood is flowing through your veins.

Choosing which wrist-based tracker to buy will depend on your budget and the features you are looking for. If you need a tracker that simply monitors your heart rate and step count, you’ll likely be able to find one for less than $50. You may also be able to download a tracking app on your smartwatch.

But the more features you need, the pricier the wrist-based tracker will get. Some of the high-end models can track location, speed, distance, elevation and even the cadence of your pedal stroke on a bicycle.

Chest-strap monitors

If you’re looking for the most accurate way to track your heart rate during exercise, a chest-strap monitor may be the solution for you. While they can take some getting used to, chest-strap monitors are more precise than wrist-based monitors because they are closer to your heart.

With some chest-strap monitors, the heart rate data is sent to a receiver that you wear on your wrist — they look similar to fitness trackers or smartwatches. This type of monitor usually has a higher price tag compared to most wrist-based trackers. Fortunately, there are some more affordable chest-strap monitors that you can sync to a phone or compatible smartwatch you already own.

Heart rate monitors for health conditions

While some people may want a heart monitor to stay fit, others may need one to track a heart condition, such as atrial fibrillation or tachycardia

Portable EKGs that sync with your phone

Several portable EKG (or electrocardiogram) options have hit the market in recent years. EKGs monitor the electrical activity in the heart and can provide valuable reports to tell your doctor if your heart is working properly and beating at a normal rhythm.

Certain smartwatches may have an EKG feature already built-in, while others can have one added with a special wristband. There are also EKG apps for smartphones that measure heart activity by scanning your fingertip on the camera lens. Some apps can even send EKG data securely to your doctor.

The price and effectiveness of digital EKG tools can vary, so be sure to talk with your doctor before purchasing one.

Portable heart monitors

One of the most common doctor-prescribed heart monitors is a Holter monitor, which is a battery-operated, portable EKG. A Holter monitor is about the size of a camera and has several wires (or leads) with sticky electrodes. The electrodes attach to different places on your chest and abdomen.

Most people who need a Holter monitor will wear it for 24-48 hours or longer at a time, depending on their condition. Holter monitors can help show your doctor why you are experiencing an irregular heartbeat or dizziness. It can also determine whether certain medicines are working to keep your heartbeat regular.

Many insurance companies cover Holter monitors (at least partially) if they are prescribed by your doctor, but check with your provider to understand your specific coverage.

Before jumping into any new heart rate monitor, make a list of the features you need and set a budget. Creating these guidelines can help ensure you get the right device for you.

You should also consult your primary care provider before shopping around for a new device, especially if it’s one to track a heart condition. Your doctor will be able to recommend a reliable tool that fits your needs and budget.


Find a doctor

If you need heart care, Providence’s heart and vascular specialists provide award-winning cardiovascular treatment. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory

Which heart rate monitor is right for you? Learn about the different types and uses, and how to find the right one for you. #hearthealth

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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