HuffyHow: How to Choose a Heart Rate Monitor

I recently purchased a heart rate monitor (HRM), so I now consider myself a self-proclaimed expert on choosing one. I’ll share what I learned to help those who might be thinking about getting a monitor for themselves.

Disclaimer: I have no association with any companies that make or sell heart rate monitors, and receive no incentives of any kind for recommending a particular monitor or vendor.

There are many manufacturers of heart rate monitors, including Polar, Timex, Omron, Garmin, Reebok and Bowflex. After asking what other people use, and seeing what was available locally, the two brands that interested me were Polar and Timex so I’ll concentrate on those. Readers can explore the many other brands available online.

Polar has been in the HRM business since 1977 and seems to have a good track record. Polar has a vast array of monitors that start from the basics – pure heart rate, to ones that tell you the temperature on the moon (not really, but you get the point). I’ll concentrate on the basic models that will suit most “average” people. Those of you who insist on knowing the temperature on the moon, barometric pressure and missile launch codes while training (you know who you are) can explore those HRMs on your own.

Polar divides their line of monitors into three categories: get active; improve fitness; and maximize performance. The “get active” line features a variety of monitors that have similar features. The F6 and 7 include stylish color choices and bands, and just look pretty. The RS line is basic black and all business; the CS line is similar to RS but includes a bicycle computer. All include some variation of the basics: they allow you to set a target heart rate zone, either by an age calculation or by personal settings; they provide a signal if the user is above or below the target zone; they record the data from your workout such as average heart rate and time in zone, estimate calories and fat burned, and so on. They also include basic watch features such as time and date, and a chest strap with wireless transmitter to get the heart rate data from your body to the watch. Prices range from $69.95 for the most stripped down model, to $119.95 at the highest end. There are minor variations in the features, battery life, and weight. This is the line I’d recommend for the beginner to average user who wants basic feedback during and after each workout session.

The “improve fitness” line and “maximize performance” lines includes the basics as above, plus extra features that emphasis training and progress, may monitor your speed and distance, and include computer software that allows you to store and analyze training data. Some include GPS functions that allow you to map and print out your training route. Prices range from to $169.95 to $709.95.

Timex has been the leader in wristwatches since 1950, when the adopted the slogan “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” along with a campaign of people doing all sorts of crazy things to their watches and showing that they still worked. In the 1980’s Timex joined the digital watch revolution and created the Ironman line of watches and Ironman heart rate monitors.

The basic Timex monitors have the same features as the basic Polar and pricing is similar with the most basic monitor at around $70. Timex also carries monitors for advanced training similar to Polar as well, that run into the $200 and up range.

I found it more difficult to review the Timex monitors because the web site showed them all grouped together without prices. They had a great comparison tool on the site, but in order to use it you kind of had to know which monitors you were interested in. Once you picked several monitors to compare, it gave you a comparison chart, but still did not show the price, other than “under $100, $100-$130, and over $100. In order to find the price of a particular monitor,  you must click “buy now” and then a box pops up showing the price. Because this was so time-consuming, I’ve opted to not describe the individual models here. Nothing personal against Timex – just too much data to compare. However, when I looked at the monitors in person, I found them easier to compare because there were only a few models offered, and pricing is quite similar to Polar for monitors with the same features.

So, Polar or Timex – how do you decide? I found the Polar monitors a little more sleek and business-like, more about function than form. The web site is easy to use if you want to compare models online. Prices are clearly displayed so you needn’t bother examining the details of a monitor that you can’t afford. Selection is more limited and there are fewer models specifically for women. Aesthetically the watch portion screams “heart rate monitor” and most folks would probably not wear it as an everyday watch (although you can) unless you want everyone to know how into fitness you are.

Timex has a huge selection, prices are more reasonable, but unless you know what you’re looking for, can spend a long time clicking through their web site to see if the monitor you like is in your price range. Timex also offers more choices in women’s only models. Overall the watch portion looks more “watch like” and would be more practical to wear as an everyday watch. With the Timex on your arm everyday you can give the impression that you have a really cool job that requires a high-tech watch – Navy seal maybe? But be careful if you shop on their web site – the site is for all Timex watches, not just heart rate monitors and you can really get bogged down in slogging through the choices.

While web sites are great for comparing features and getting an idea on prices, when you’re ready to buy, I recommend shopping in person at your local fitness store. First, it helps your local business stay in business, so you’ll know they’ll still be there when you need shoes, clothes and other fitness gear. Next, there’s nothing like seeing the monitors in person, trying them on and pushing all the buttons. This is a great way to compare the other features besides the monitor functions. Can you read the display? I opted for the men’s version of my monitor because I wanted the biggest numbers I could get. The women’s version was cuter, but if I can’t see it, what’s the point. Does the watch stay on your wrist without sliding around? Check to see if you able to get the band tight enough, especially if you’re a woman buying the man’s version. The monitor won’t do you any good if it’s spinning around your wrist because the band is too loose. Are the buttons easy to find and use? Polar has a big red start and stop button on the lower face of the watch, which doubles as a lap counter. You don’t want to be fumbling around to find the start button, especially in bad weather when you might be wearing gloves or long sleeves. (I was hoping that the big red button would also flash a red light when you were out of your THR zone, but alas, sometimes a button is just a button.) Are the features easy enough to find and use? If you can’t remember how to get to the features without consulting the manual, chances are you won’t use them. I have to give a shout out to Rob at my local fitness store, Gazelle Sports. He opened up all the boxes, let me try on each monitor over and over, showed me how to use all the monitor functions and spent at least an hour with me overall. That brings me to the third point about shopping locally – chances are the folks working in your fitness store are using the same monitors themselves. They know how they work, they know what monitors other customers like, and don’t bother to stock the models that are less useful.

In the end I chose the Polar RS 100 model for about $120.00. The display is easy to read, the buttons are easy to find and use. The monitor beeps when you’re out of your THR zone. The heart rate number also flashes, which I found helpful, as I can’t hear the beeps when I’m biking outside. It has a hands-free function that shows your THR zone if you hold the watch near the chest strap. I chose the mens’s version because I wanted a big display, but it pretty much takes up my entire wrist, so it’s unlikely that I’d wear it as an everyday watch. That said, on a man it would look fine. I liked the chest strap which is a soft fabric, and so far have not had any trouble keeping it in place. (Women can buy a special sports bra to hold the strap if you prefer. I’d recommend trying it without first.)

Whew! This turned out to be longer than I intended, but hopefully gives readers a good starting point for choosing a heart rate monitor.