How do you gauge how hard you’re working when you’re doing moderate-intensity aerobics or high-intensity interval training? There are low-tech ways like using the RPE (rate-of-perceived exertion) scale to rate your level of exertion on a scale of one to ten. There’s also the “talk test.” If you’re exercising hard enough that it’s difficult to speak in complete sentences, you’ve crossed into the high-intensity zone, but if you’re able to carry on a conversation you’re working out at moderate intensity or lower. You can also stop periodically to check your heart rate to see if you’re in your target heart rate zone.
Now that you know you don’t HAVE to have a heart rate monitor to measure exercise intensity, why bother getting one at all? Here are some of the advantages heart rate monitors offer and how they can help you monitor and improve your workout.
It’s a Source of Constant Feedback
When you’re working out, it’s easy to forget to stop and check our heart rate or gauge your exercise intensity on the RPE scale. When you strap on a heart rate monitor, you get immediate feedback and quickly know whether you’re working hard enough. It’s easy to overestimate how hard you’re working out and many people think they’re working harder than they are based on factors like how much they’re sweating. That’s not always a reliable indicator. When you’re wearing a heart rate monitor you get instant objective feedback that tells you at what intensity you’re working.
You Can Use It to See If Your Fitness Level Is Improving
Your level of cardiovascular fitness is reflected in your recovery heart rate. As you become more aerobically fit, your heart rate should come down more quickly after a workout. A heart rate monitor makes it easy to monitor your recovery heart rate. To do this, note your heart rate value at the end of your workout. After one minute, recheck it. Subtract the first value from the second. The difference should be greater than twelve and it should become greater as you become more fit.
Research even shows that slow recovery heart rate is a marker for greater cardiovascular mortality. That’s why it’s a good idea to monitor your heart rate recovery whether or not you use a heart rate monitor to do it. Another study showed that changes in heart rate recovery, an unexpected increase in recovery time, can be a sign of overtraining. Heart rate monitors make it easy to check your recovery heart rate and with more advanced monitors you can save the data on a daily basis or upload it to a training log.
You Can Make Quick Workout Adjustments
Some people find they work harder when they have the feedback that a heart rate monitor offers. Heart rate monitors give you objective information during a workout you can use to adjust intensity. When you glance at your monitor and see your heart rate is lower than it should be, you can quickly make adjustments so you’re back in your zone. This ensures you don’t waste time exercising at an intensity that’s too low. Likewise, you can see when your heart rate is too high and lower the intensity a bit to avoid overtraining.
You Can Use It to Monitor Your Heart Rate during Non-Structured Exercise
If you have a heart rate monitor that measures calories burned, you get feedback on how many calories you’ve burning doing non-structured exercise like housework or running errands. It’s also a useful tool to wear when you’re hiking or playing recreational sports – to measure intensity and calorie burn. It’s not just for structured exercise.
Some Offer Additional Features Heart Rate Monitors Offer
Some of the newer heart rate monitors have additional features you can use to track your fitness. For example, with some monitors you can save and upload heart rate data to an online training log so you have a record of your peak heart rate, average heart rate and recovery heart rate on a daily basis. Some models come with other features including an interval timer and calorie data and allow you to set a target heart rate zone. If you’re exercising outside of your pre-determined zone, it will make an audible sound. Of course, having these additional features costs more but having the ability to upload and analyze heart rate data can help you fine-tune your workout.
The Bottom Line?
Using a heart rate monitor isn’t the only way to monitor exercise intensity but it’s one of the easiest and most convenient. Plus, newer models also monitor calories burned and have other features like the ability to save data and upload it to a training log. It’s a good way to make sure you’re working out an appropriate intensity to maximize your benefits.
Scand J Med Sci Sports 2010: 20; 449-457.
New England Journal of Medicine 1999(October 28);341(18):1351-7.