These chest straps and watches can help keep your finger on the pulse of your wellness.
THOSE DAYS OF getting a heart rate reading only when you visit your physician are truly a thing of the past. You don’t even have to spend big money or leave your home to get a sense of your heart rate during exercise or at rest.
The rise of optical and EKG (electrocardiogram) sensors that can now reliably deliver that information from your wrist, chest, or arm means you can better understand how hard you hit it in that boot camp class and get a window into the most stressful periods of your day.
Where to Wear It
Why you want a heart rate monitor? What kind of information do you need to see, and when and how will you wear the device? Asking these questions will help you get a heart rate monitor that not only delivers wearability, accuracy, and value, but is right for your lifestyle and health needs.
Where on your body you want to wear a
heart rate monitor is a pretty important factor. Wearing one on the wrist, as part of a smartwatch, may be the most convenient way to track heart rate, though a strap—typically on the chest and more recently the upper arm or bicep—can generate more accurate data for activities like exercise. If you want to track heart rate during sleep, make sure you opt for a form factor that isn’t going to feel bulky or become a nuisance for your sleeping companion. If you’re hoping to use it with other fitness equipment or a watch, look for the type of Bluetooth and ANT+ connectivity support to do that with single or multiple devices.
PHOTOGRAPH: POLAR ELECTRO
A chest strap remains the most accurate way to track your
heart rate for exercise, putting an EKG sensor closest to your heart. The Polar H10 is the standout here. That’s because Polar has replaced the typical loop-and-hook connector found on most monitors with a buckle-style connector to reduce irritation. The company also uses small silicone dots to make sure the strap stays put during high-intensity activities so the HR data is still good.
Comfort aside, it’s the most accurate of the monitors I’ve tested for exercise. There were no glaring drop-outs or underreporting or overreporting during my test runs, indoor cycles, strength training, or interval sessions. Having some built-in memory to store data for a session is useful, and the ANT+ connectivity means you can effortlessly link equipment like turbo trainers or swap out the HR stats on your watch for more accurate ones. You can take it for a swim too, and you won’t have to replace the battery for a year, even if you’re wearing it on a regular basis.
Garmin Forerunner 265
If a chest strap is out of the question because you need to see your metrics in real time and glance at them during the day, the Forerunner 265 is a multisport watch that can deliver reliable heart rate metrics during workouts, and even when you head to bed.
The headline change from the previous 255 is the addition of a vibrant AMOLED touchscreen display inside a 42-mm or 46-mm case, which holds Garmin’s Elevate optical heart rate sensor. That delivers continuous heart rate data by the second and does so reliably. During runs and indoor workouts, the sensor holds up well at high intensity, with the support to pair to external heart rate monitors if want to go pro. That optical sensor also brings other useful measurements, like heart rate variability (HRV), which fuels useful features such as Training Readiness. This uses HRV, along with other metrics, to provide a clear sense of whether you should go hard or give your body a rest day.
PHOTOGRAPH: WAHOO FITNESS
For Indoor Cyclists
Wahoo Tickr X
Few monitors feel like they belong on the bodies of cyclists—but the Wahoo Tickr X is one of them. Especially if you spend more than your fair share of that bike time in the confines of your home.
The latest Tickr X, with its 50 hours of onboard storage, uses an EKG sensor. And it now integrates that sensor into a strap that’s slimmer than the one used in the last iteration. Wahoo uses LED light indicators that you can glance at during workouts to see clearly that it’s reading your heart rate and has successfully connected to another piece of smart indoor bike equipment over ANT+ or Bluetooth. That connectivity support means you can pair multiple devices at the same time, making it ideal to hook up to Zwift and Peloton—plus it plays nice with an Apple Watch. It also works with Wahoo’s own phone app to track cycling cadence, with additional advanced metrics when you swap biking for your running shoes.
PHOTOGRAPH: POLAR ELECTRO
For Chest-Strap Haters
Polar Verity Sense
Chest straps might be the gold standard for tracking your heart rate during intense exercise, but they’re not comfortable for everyone. If you’re yearning to get that accurate data from somewhere else, there’s the Polar Verity Sense.
Polar has placed its optical sensor technology in a small sensor that sits inside a cradle with a machine-washable strap that’s worn on your upper arm. The device promises accuracy on par with a chest strap. It’s not spotless, but it certainly delivers better heart rate data for high-intensity workouts than most wrist-based sensors can. Polar offers the ability to transmit heart rate data to watches, lets you store 600 hours of workouts, and allows you to clip the Sense to goggles to track your heart rate during swims. It’s not the only arm-based sensor available; devices like the Whoop 4.0 ($239) also let you track from that position, but this Polar is a cheaper and better way to get reliable stats away from the chest.
Best Smartwatch for Heart Rate
Apple Watch Series 8
People love the Apple Watch (8/10, WIRED Recommends) for its day-to-day smartwatch features, but it has also evolved into a fantastic health and fitness companion. A big part of that is down to the work Apple has done finessing its heart rate sensor technology, and that continues with the Series 8.
We’ll start with the fact that there are both EKG and optical sensors here. The former has the regulatory approval to detect signs of serious heart health issues, such as atrial fibrillation (AFib), and easily share heart rate data with medical professionals. On the fitness side, this is one of the best-performing smartwatches we’ve tested for high-intensity exercise, which is where so many other watches falter. It also performs more reliably than the larger Apple Watch Ultra (8/10, WIRED Recommends) on that front. Apple lets you pair up external heart rate monitors and gives you access to an extensive collection of sports and health apps that can harness those heart rate sensors to offer even more useful insights.
An Affordable Fitbit
Fitbit Charge 5
All of Fitbit’s smartwatches and fitness trackers have the power to track your heart in some way, and the Charge 5 (8/10, WIRED Recommends) squeezes its latest smarts into a fitness band that can last a week on a single charge. It’s our favorite tracker for good reason.
You have the EKG sensor here, as seen on Fitbit’s pricier Sense smartwatch, and—similar to the Apple Watch (above)—this carries regulatory approval to check for signs associated with AFib, as well as monitoring for irregular heart rate rhythms. Fitbit also puts its optical sensor to good use when you’re tracking heart rate continuously and during sleep, letting you see when your heart rate goes above or below a set threshold and capturing HRV measurements to analyze your stress levels. It’s less impressive for more rigorous exercise and doesn’t let you pair with external sensors to improve that data—this is an affordable tracker, after all. What the Charge 5 gives you, though, is the best of Fitbit’s tracking with an AMOLED display and heart rate data that you can rely on for general health insights.
For Garmin Owners
Garmin HRM-Pro Plus
If you’ve already got a Garmin watch on your wrist or a Garmin bike computer mounted to your handlebar, the HRM-Pro Plus offers a seamless route to more accurate
heart rate data so you can better gauge your fitness levels and recovery needs.
The EKG sensor didn’t falter at high intensity when I tested it out on runs, indoor HIIT bike sessions, or bodyweight workouts. It’s now much easier to remove the battery than with Garmin’s earlier chest strap, though you won’t need to think about that for at least a year. The ANT+ and Bluetooth support mean it works with apps and platforms like Zwift, and there were no flaky pairing issues with the latest Fenix, Forerunner, or AMOLED-packing Epix watches. Extra features include advanced running metrics, like vertical oscillation and ground contact time, to help you dig deeper into your form. And if you want to wear it for a game of soccer, it’ll double as an activity tracker to count steps and intensity minutes.