All about heart rate monitors

Let technology guide you to an appropriate level of exercise intensity.

By Ylva Van Buren

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In a recent letter to Polar (a company that makes heart rate monitors), cycling enthusiast Javaram Bhat told the company that a heart rate monitor had helped to diagnose a heart problem -- and probably saved his life. Bhat, who had worn Polar products while cycling for years, said that during a workout last spring, the monitor showed his heart rate was not going up while he was climbing a steep hill. He was feeling slight nausea and some weakness after 20 minutes, and something told him to get to the hospital. And good thing: doctors found a blocked right coronary artery. "I had an emergency angioplasty," says Bhat, "and I'm fine now."

While anyone who has experienced a heart attack or has heart problems is advised to discuss precautions around exercise with their doctor, Bhat's story illustrates how technology can help red-flag problems during exercise.

Pumping at a healthy level
Cardiovascular exercise, which strengthens the heart and works other major muscles in the body, is recommended for most people, but it's important to exercise within recommended training heart-rate zones, especially as you age. While there is a "perceived exertion" method -- where you think about how hard you are working on a scale of one to 10 and try to stay mid-range -- of judging how hard your heart is working, a heart rate monitor measures your heartbeat and registers it constantly. As pace picks up and the heart beats faster to move oxygen through the body, the rate increases, and the monitor will display that increase.

The recommended training zone for most healthy Canadians is 60 to 70 per cent of their maximum heart rate, which is 220 minus your age, measured in beats per minute. For example, at age 55, the maximum heart rate is 165 (220 minus 55), and the target training zone is 99 (60 per cent of 165) to 115 (70 per cent of 165).

Train safely
Some people have a tendency to push themselves too hard, so a heart rate monitor is a great safety measure, says Darcy Berard, a buyer in Edmonton for Running Room stores across the country. Also, for people who are into fitness and have fitness goals, says Berard, a heart rate monitor is a great way to measure performance. "It keeps you on track and on an even level," he says, "so you're not overworking one day and underworking the next."

What does a heart rate monitor look like? Kevin Farnham, manager at New Balance, a retail store in Toronto, says it's a two-piece unit consisting of an elasticized chest strap with two metal electrodes (worn around the breastbone) and a wristwatch that displays the heart rate. There are no wires or connectors that go from strap to watch. "Pulse readers," which don't have a chest strap and measure heart rate at the wrist, are also available. They are very basic and accuracy may not be as good.

Heart rate monitors range in price from about $69 up to over $500. The more expensive monitors have extra features: they may count calories and steps, have timers and, at the very high end, contain a GPS, a satellite-based navigation system. Talk to a specialty athletic goods retailer for more information about which heart rate monitor is most suitable for you.

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