Which is Better? Optical or Chest-strap Heart Rate Monitors?

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Tracking Your Heart Rate

Tracking heart rate is the most accurate way of checking how intense your workout is. By using a heart rate monitor (HRM), you can measure how hard you heart works in beats per minute (BPM). A heart rate monitor informs you how your body is responding to your activity level so that you know when to slow it down or speed it up.

Why use a heart rate monitor?

Since our hearts are different from each other, we cannot have the same training intensity as everyone else. We need to determine the level of activity we need to perform to make our heart work on a certain heart rate zone. Depending on your level of fitness, medical experts recommend a target heart rate between 50 and 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. To have an effective workout, you need to find and stay within an ideal heart rate range throughout your exercise. There is an optimal heart rate range at which you burn fat more effectively, and a zone that is designed to increase your anaerobic threshold if you’re training for a marathon or a particular sport.

Optical or Strapless HRM

Basically, the optical sensors are more of a pulse sensor rather than an electrocardiogram (ECG) monitor. Most optical heart rate monitors are built-in on wristwatch devices. It measures your heart rate using optical light sensors that read changes in the blood flow in the capillaries on your wrist. This is done by shining light through the skin and detecting the changing light reflections. Blood absorbs light more easily than surrounding tissue, so if there's more blood in the area, less light will come back to the sensor. With each heartbeat, blood surges through arteries and veins and then diminishes. The sensor considers this variation of blood flow as heart beats or pulses which is transmitted to you in beats per minute.  

Below are examples of watches with built-in optional heart rate monitors:
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Chest-strap HRM

Standard heart monitors with chest-strap come with an elastic chest strap which you wear around your chest. The strap transmits a signal via Bluetooth Smart or ANT+ connectivity to a monitor which you wear on your wrist like a watch or a compatible smartphone. Similar to an electrocardiogram the chest strap transmitter electromagnetically sends signals about your heart rate so that you can see your heart rate in real time.

Below are examples of heart rate monitors chest-straps:
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Should you get a strapless (optical) or a chest-strap heart rate monitor?


Both types of HRM use algorithms to estimate the heart rate based on what they detect. They provide continuous heart-rate readings that you can monitor on your watch or smartphone. Consumer Reports found that both strap and strapless heart rate monitors are both accurate. You just have to pick one that best suits your workout routine.

If you want a heart rate monitor that you can wear all the time without having to wear a separate chest-strap accessory, then get an optical HRM. This is perfect for those like to have an “on-demand” heart rate readings right on their wrist but feel uncomfortable working out with a chest strap.

However, if you don’t mind wearing a chest strap, there are lot of HRM straps in the market for you to choose from. Chest strap heart rate monitors are generally preferred by more serious fitness enthusiast and athletes because there’s a pretty strong consensus that they provide near-absolute accuracy. You do have to wet the chest strap first before you wear it to get accurate readings. 

Many of today’s HRM straps can be paired with compatible sportwatches and smartphones. This allows you to view your data via apps you can download for free. If you use a phone with your HRM, just make sure you secure your phone so you you don’t drop it especially during intense workout. HRM straps are less expensive than watches with built-in optical heart rate monitors since you can get them as a separate accessory. If you already have a compatible wearable device like a sportwatch, getting an HRM strap is the practical way to go. 

Regardless of the type of HRM you prefer, using a heart rate monitor is a great motivating workout tool. Tracking your heart rate let you identify your progress while encouraging you to push yourself to the next step. Knowing your heart’s efficiency can guide you with your fitness goals so that you make sure that get the most out of each workout.
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