Heart rate monitors (HRMs) and activity trackers are both exploding in popularity, with dozens of manufacturers producing fitness devices suitable for virtually any fitness level and fashion preference. Activity trackers and HRMs are not the same, though, and you need to understand their similarities and differences before you make the call about which one to buy.
Traditional HRMs, include a strap, transmitter (often detachable from the strap) and a watch-like receiver worn on the wrist. By contrast, most activity trackers don’t have a strap. They are a single piece of equipment worn on the wrist, similar to the receiver of an HRM. They usually have fewer buttons or controls, and the trend is for manufacturers to use a slender, narrow-width face and band rather than the more square or circular faces on most HRM receivers. Most HRMs on the market today can double as watches, but not all activity trackers can—the HeartQ ARC Activity Tracker is an example of a model that effectively eliminates the need for a separate timepiece.
Both activity trackers and heart rate monitors can tell you how quickly your heart is beating, and both fitness devices usually offer an estimate of calories burned. Heart rate monitors, however, are intended to be worn during exercise, even high-intensity workouts. They are intended to keep you working at a level that safely challenges your cardiovascular system. They often provide many advanced features that let you fine tune your training program, such as monitoring dehydration, speed or geographical location.
Activity trackers are intended for everyday wear. They give you a picture of how much you move through the day (usually through 3D sensors and calculations related to your stride/step), rather than just when you’re in the gym. Some can function as HRMs for lower-intensity workouts, but the majority of these devices still have a disclaimer stating they’re not meant for rigorous activity. They are meant mainly to motivate you to make physical movement a regular part of your lifestyle. Some can provide more advanced features. The ARC, for instance, offers sleep tracking, as adequate rest is necessary for fitness recovery and general good health.
Manufacturers of activity trackers constantly are advancing their products to offer realistic biofeedback to users. Nevertheless, these devices generally are not quite as accurate as chest-strap HRMs. The superior trustworthiness of chest-strap HRMs has to do with the fact they rely on technology that’s virtually the same as in electrocardiogram (EKG) machines. Non-chest-strap HRMs and many activity trackers use other technologies, such as optical sensing, which suffer from biological and environmental complications and therefore are not as accurate. Highly advanced algorithms help offset the inaccuracies to a decent degree but don’t eliminate the problem completely.
What to Pick
If you’re comparing HRMs and activity trackers, these points are a good rule of thumb.
Choose a HRM if you:
- Are looking to take your workouts to the next level of precision
- Want to guarantee your workouts aren’t taxing you too much
- Want to guarantee your workouts are tough enough
- You want to know how many calories a workout burns so you don’t under- or overeat
- You want to stay within certain heart rate zones a certain percentage of time to influence the overall shape your body takes on through training
- You exercise regularly (at least three times a week, if not every day)
- You enjoy analyzing how your body responds to specific exercises or comparing the effectiveness of different moves
- You have to stay in a specific heart rate zone due to an injury or medical condition
- Are a beginner exerciser or need a little push to get moving
- You are looking to maintain or improve your general health
- You are looking not just to feel better physically, but to initiate real lifestyle changes through an increased amount of movement
- You are more concerned with the amount of physical activity you have over the course of a day than the intensity of the activity
- You want to monitor other areas that relate to your health, such as the amount of sleep you are getting
- Your physical activities through the day involve arm movements (sensors in the wrist unit will register you as inactive if the arms are sedentary, even if you are doing something like biking)
Heart rate monitors and activity trackers can have similarities, but they have real design differences, and people use them for very different purposes. Beginners or those who need encouragement generally find trackers to be very helpful, but if you are to the point of getting really serious about your workouts and have specific fitness goals aside from simply moving more, a HRM can’t be beat.
Readers Speak Out:
Which do you use, a tracker or HRM? Both? What have you gotten out of the fitness devices you picked?