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Tracking your heart rate can be a fantastic way to keep a close eye on your overall health. From fitness to potential illness, our Beats Per Minute (BPM) reveal a lot about our current wellbeing. Heart rate monitors in consumer devices are also more accurate than ever. In some cases they even feature medical-grade functionality that can offer life critical information about overall heart health.
Whether it’s a smartwatch, fitness tracker, a dedicated sports watch or a medical device, a heart-rate monitor has become a must-have feature in most wearable devices. They allow owners to glean hugely valuable insights from real-time readings during exercise, sleep and normal activity.
That’s certainly the case with the Apple Watch Series 4, which was the first over-the-counter consumer device to include an electrocardiogram approved by medical equipment regulators in the United States (and now Europe).
It’s a huge breakthrough with potentially life-saving consequences. Performing a quick 30-second test can help to identify the dangerous condition atrial fibrillation (commonly known as AFib), which increases the overall risk of stroke and heart failure. Indeed, we’ve already seen multiple examples of the condition being picked up by Apple Watch Series 4 users.
Apple’s positioning of its smartwatch as a health-centric device, rather than just a smartphone extension, reflects a growing trend. These advances in consumer technology allow us to take increasing control of our own health. Rather than relying on infrequent visits to the doctors for a series of tests, we’re starting to have access to data minute-by-minute, that paints a far more complete picture. It’s a bit like a film compared to a photo. And there are huge benefits to that.
The benefits of tracking your heart rate
A well-functioning heart rate monitor can help to:
✔️ Reveal stress: using continuous HR monitors can show you when your HR rises and falls during a day. Over time it’s possible to spot stress triggers and act to combat them.
✔️ Track overall fitness: a lower resting HR is a sign of improved cardiovascular fitness.
✔️ Spot illness: metrics like heart rate variability (HRV) and a raised resting heart rate can be signs you’re battling illness.
✔️ Identify serious conditions: advanced heart rate sensors can indicate conditions like AFib, sleep apnea and hypertension.
Are some heart rate monitors more accurate?
While the trend is for wrist-worn heart rate trackers from the likes of Fitbit, Apple, Garmin and Polar, they can also be worn on a forearm, in or on the ears and, for the very best results, around the chest. There’s even some monitors that you don’t need to wear at all!
When purchasing a heart rate monitor, you’ll be choosing between an optical heart rate sensor (also called PPG), such as those on most consumer fitness devices, and the growing number of monitors that offer the more advanced ECG technology. While optical heart rate sensors use LED lights to detect the flow of blood through the skin, ECG-based devices detect the electrical signals emitted by the heart.
ECG tech has been the preeminent medical standard for decades, but it’s important to remember that not all devices offering this technology are approved by medical regulators. Optical sensors are becoming increasingly competitive, and can be more useful in comparing changes in a heart rate over time. With all that in mind, here’s our pick of the best trackers to monitor your heart health.
The best heart rate monitors to try
From smart watches to portable ECGs, here are 10 of the best heart rate monitors to help you keep your heart healthy:
Apple Watch Series 4
Apple’s latest smartwatch represents a breakthrough. It was the first consumer device to offer an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) approved by the FDA. By placing a digit on the Digital Crown, users can get a reading in just 30-seconds via the Heart Rate app. It is hoped the feature will help wearers detect serious underlying conditions like AFib, which can often go undiagnosed.
Beyond the ECG test, Apple has added irregular heart rhythm notifications to the Series 1-4 watches. Apple looks out for arrhythmia during regular heart rate monitoring and sends alerts if anomalies are detected. These metrics are reported back to the Apple Health app and can be shared with a medical professional. If the Apple Watch isn’t your cup of tea, the cheaper Withings Move ECG is coming this spring with FDA-cleared ECG.
Kardia is a smartphone-connected portable ECG that is a great option for those who’d like to track potential irregularities without wearing a device. The pocket-friendly FDA-cleared device enables patients to take a quick reading when they experience heart flutters or palpitations. Readings are transmitted back to a companion app, saving users the hassle of visiting the doctor each time.
Round the clock access to the tech also makes it possible for users to connect these irregularities with symptoms they may be feeling. If you own an Apple Watch Series 1-3 and don’t want to upgrade to a Series 4 with the built-in ECG, the Apple Watch KardiaBand strap enables you to augment an existing watch with the ECG. Pretty smart.
Withings BPM Core
The forthcoming Withings BPM Core is an at-home monitor that ticks many heart health boxes and provides a holistic view of overall heart health. The Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-connected cuff can take blood pressure and heart rate readings, while also offering an electrocardiogram via a pair of electrodes (one in the cuff and another in the steel tube held during testing).
The device is also notable as the first blood pressure monitor to check for valvular heart disease – often a silent killer – via a built-in digital stethoscope. In just 90-seconds the Core can perform checks for hypertension, AFib and VHD – illnesses that often exhibit no symptoms – and report colour-coded findings back to the Health Mate application. The device is currently pending clearance with the FDA and is expected to go on sale this spring.
There’s more to heart health than monitoring beats-per-minute. Some wearable devices are designed to help you bring those readings down in times of duress. The Muse 2 from Canadian startup InteraXon, is a guided meditation headset offering stress management techniques to assist in lowering the heart rate. It uses brainwave sensors to interpret your mental activity and will reward you with peaceful weather sounds when you’re able to quieten your mind. Lose focus, and you’ll hear stormy weather.
As well as the addition of an optical HR sensor (PPG), this highly-rated over-ear headband also measures pulse oximetry, informing wearers whether the heart is doing its job and sending adequate levels of oxygen around the body.
Withings Body Cardio
Remember we mentioned some heart rate monitors don’t have to be worn at all? The Withings Body Cardio smart scale is one such device. If you weigh yourself at the same time every day, it’s a great way to track changes in your heart health over time.
A resting heart rate that trends lower is a great indication of improvement in cardiovascular fitness. A higher resting heart rate could mean your body is fighting illness, or combatting the effects of a particularly enjoyable weekend. In all cases, drink more water.
Heart rate variability (HRV) – the variability of the time between individual heart beats – is an increasingly popular heart health metric; especially when it comes to measuring how well your heart reacts to athletic strain. A higher HRV can indicate the body is ready to accept your workout demands, while a lower reading can be a sign that the body needs rest.
While a selection of wearable devices now offer HRV readings, the highly-accurate Scosche Rhythm24 might be the pick. The waterproof, pool-ready band is worn around the forearm and also uses LED lights (rather than a display) to indicate heart rate zones. It’s also compatible with many popular sports watches and will transmit data back to an app like HRV4Training, which provides a number of health-centric insights beyond cardiovascular fitness.
For sports and fitness enthusiasts, the Polar H10 band is undoubtedly the gold standard. Renowned for its precision readings, the chest-worn monitor will record a workout (even when used under water) and report the findings back to an app or Polar watch.
When combined with a compatible device like the Vantage V triathlon watch (see below), the H10 strap will also enable you to perform the Orthostatic Test, which is based upon your heart rate variability reading, and helps users strike a balance between training and recovery. Performed regularly the test can act as a baseline. Variances, which could be caused by poor sleep, illness, environmental factors and stress, are a hint you shouldn’t push so hard today.
Fitbit Charge HR 3
Offering the best heart rate monitor on a dedicated Fitbit tracker, the third-generation Charge HR’s optical PurePulse technology offers continuous 24/7 tracking to provide key insights into your BPM while at work, rest and play. The device also takes a cue from the Muse 2 tracker by guiding wearers through breathing exercises based upon their current heart rate. For fitness enthusiasts, the powerful companion app is great for tracking heart rate zones, while it’ll also enable wearers to keep tabs on resting heart rate trends.
Not everyone feels comfortable wearing a chest strap, so Polar’s latest tracker can be worn on the bicep, forearm or even clipped onto a pair of swimming goggles. Yes, it’s fully waterproof and sits snugly against the temple while in the pool. Offering six optical sensors, the tracker can broadcast your data to an app or device of your choosing in real time, but also features a standalone training mode that will store 200 hours of workouts until you’re ready for the data to be synced.
Polar Vantage V
You might have spotted from the trio of devices in this list, Polar is unrivalled when it comes to fitness-focused heart-rate monitors. Heck, it has been making them since 1976! The Vantage V is a watch designed for triathletes and is the best optical sensor in a watch. The new Precision Prime technology sets new standards for wrist-based optical HR sensors by factoring in skin contact measurements that “rule out any motion artefacts that could disturb the heart rate signal and provide unreliable readings.” The watch is designed for a specific audience – that rare breed of punishment gluttons who like to swim, bike and run one after the other, excelling in strain and recovery insights.
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