Heart rate monitors are essential if you want to accurately track your fitness levels - many athletes use them. While it's possible to measure your pulse manually, finding and counting your pulse rate can be a little fiddly, especially while you're exercising. In contrast, a heart rate monitor keeps a constant eye on your pulse and never loses count. By displaying your heart rate, the monitor also gives you a target range to stay within to aim for. You can monitor the intensity of your workout, which makes it easy for you to step it up or reduce it as appropriate. Seeing your heart rate increases your motivation for exercising and clearly lets you know whether you're improving or underperforming. It also allows you to train at your own pace and adapt your fitness programme. Many heart rate monitors have additional features that track calories, distance etc.
How heart rate monitors work
In some ways, heart rate monitors are similar to rev counters in cars. They're usually attached to your chest and as you exercise they continually send your heart rate count to the receiver, which usually looks like a wristwatch. Most monitors have alarms that go off when you go above or below a level that you have set up and some also store information for future use.
What should your heart be when you exercise?
This is actually very easy to work out. Let's start with your maximum heart rate first; this is the fastest that your heart should beat. Simply take away your age from the number 220. Somebody of 20 would therefore be expected to have a maximum rate of 200, whilst a 50-year-old would be looking at a rate of 170.
Once you have this number, you can then work out what your pulse should be when you're exercising normally. If you're new to exercising, then you should exercise at 50-60% of your maximum heart rate; this means that a beginners' rate for someone aged 20 would be between 100 and 120 beats per minute (50-60% of 200).
If you're ready for a tougher workout, aim at somewhere between 60-85% of your maximum rate.
The following table gives you a rough guide to the recommended pulse rates you should aim for when exercising: