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Heart Rate Monitors: An Essential Training Partner?

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A  fitness center catering to women recently opened near my home.  As part of its grand opening, the center offered me a free week classes which it claimed would "transform" my body. I told them I was game.

When I arrived for my first class, one of the first things my trainer asked me was whether I had brought a heart rate monitor.

When I said no, that I didn't own one, she told me that I needed to bring a heart monitor to my next session if I wanted to achieve my fitness goals.

Fortunately, as a result of my efforts over the years advocating for the placement of automatic external defibrillators at every youth sports practice and game (the fitness center didn't have an AED, by the way), I was able to quickly obtain not one but three monitors to try on a demo basis.

But I was still puzzled as to why I needed a heart monitor in the first place and how it worked. After all, I had never had any heart problems, and, given all the biking, kayaking , walking and yoga I did, thought I was in reasonably good shape (albeit carrying a few extra pounds; not an uncommon problem for women my age).

I found out that the monitor was not to measure how strong my heart was (I am sure I didn't look like I was ready to keel over!), but so my trainers could help me achieve a heart rate that would not just maintain fitness but burn off some of those extra pounds.

I learned that if I used the monitor the correct way, it is like having a personal trainer with me at every workout, bike ride or walk, whether in the fitness center or exercising on my own, and its use ensured that I trained at the correct intensity - not too hard, not too easy. When I wanted to push myself and work harder, my heart monitor would show me when I reached the right intensity.

I also learned that fitness depended on three variables: (1) Frequency (how often I exercised); (2) Duration (how long each exercise session lasted); and, (3) Intensity (how challenging the exercise session was).

To maintain fitness and weight, a few workouts each week was all I would need, and a heart rate monitor wouldn't be needed. But since my personal goal was to become more fit and lose weight, a heart monitor would help me achieve the workout intensity to achieve those goals.

Finding the proper frequency and duration of exercise was easy. I had already committed to riding my bike, paddle my kayak or walk to my office every day and engage in weight and Pilates-type band workouts once I was there.

But workout intensity was more difficult to gauge, I learned, and the most important variable in achieving my fitness goals. The heart rate monitor has made achieving the right intensity of my exercise much easier.

I have had to decide what my heart rate will be during each workout and then I actually monitor my monitor to make sure I reach it. With a monitor, it's easy.

Polar FT7Over a two-and-a-half month period, I tried out all three of the heart rate monitors I had been sent. I ultimately chose to stick with the Polar FT7. Polar actually calls the FT7 a "Training Computer." Fair enough: it is that and then some. Not only does it monitor my heart rate but it can also sync with my computer and upload training results to the Polar Personal Trainer website, providing me clear training guidance that lets me know if I am improving fitness and/or burning fat and it displays calories burned. I have found it very comfortable to work with.

That leaves my second question: How does a heart rate monitor work?

Heart rate monitors work by detecting the electrical activity that the heart creates each time it beats. As the heart beats faster, the nervous system detects more closely-spaced electrical firings. The most accurate way to get this information is to wear a sensor around your chest as close to the heart as comfortable. My "personal training computer" also lets me know how many calories I have burned in my workout.

Is a heart monitor just another in a seemingly endless series of fun, but non-essential, tech gadgets? No, I don't think so. Young athletes who are already in peak physical condition don't need them.

For folks who have a few extra pounds (or more) they would like to take off, and are looking for a training partner, a heart monitor may become your new best friend.