How reliable are heart monitoring devices?

What surprises many is that heart disease – and the conditions that lead to it – can happen at any age. According to the CDC, high rates of obesity and high blood pressure among younger people ages 35–64 are putting them at risk for heart disease earlier in life. Knowing that half of all Americans have at least one of the top three risk factors for heart disease – high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking – make February the perfect time to consider our hearts’ health.

With heart health comes the popular question of heart monitoring devices. Are these devices accurate? What are the best heart monitoring devices on the market? In an effort to better understand heart health, cardiologist Dr. Philip Massey with Pacific Medical Centers has provided valuable insights on these topics.

1. Why do you think heart monitoring has become such a point of interest in fitness?
Heart monitoring has become incredibly popular over the last few years. Monitoring your heart’s activity providers people with an indication for how hard they are working out. I’ve noticed heart monitoring to be particularly useful for those who are not necessarily as familiar with working out and knowing what range their heart should be in to ensure they are partaking in a healthy and safe workout. The formula to calculate your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age. So, if you’re 50 years old, your maximum heart rate would be 170 beats per minute, and your training zone would be more like 85 to 145 beats per minute. Which is 50-85 percent of one’s maximum heart rate.

A lot of new and popular fitness regimes, including Orangetheory Fitness, Peloton and Mirror all rely heavily on heart rate. Again, this is incredibly useful information when you need to understand whether you are working out in a healthy range.

2. How important is it to monitor your heart rate?
I believe monitoring heart rate is incredibly important and a great indicator of your physical health – whether you are working out or in a rest state. Generally, while at rest, a heart rate of 60-100 is considered healthy, however, you should always consult with your physician to be certain.

I also believe having a better understanding of your active and resting heart rate can help you perform better, safer workouts. Knowing this information will allow for people to safely push themselves during workouts, as they will be aware of the safe zone they should be aiming for. This will also help you build up your endurance, which is incredibly important for athletes who are training for physical milestones – marathons, races, etc.

3. Are you a proponent of heart monitoring during working out?
As with everything, there is a level of vigilance needed. Your active heart rate should not be the only indicator of a healthy and safe workout. However, smartwatches can be incredibly useful to users and the market for manufactures continues to grow – Apple, Samsung, Garmin and Fossil are just a few of the watches I see my patients use. Benefits of smartwatches can include:

  • Reminding users when to exercise via a built-in step counter
  • Heart rate monitor, which can let users know when they are working out too hard
  • Heart regulation measurement, which is incredibly beneficial to patients 50+ as this feature can pick up potentially irregular heart rhythms

While nothing is 100 percent accurate, I do believe smartwatches provide more positives than negatives and have no issue with my patients utilizing them during their workouts and daily lives.

While smartwatches can be remarkably accurate, I always caution my patients on relying on exercise equipment to monitor their heart rate. Exercise equipment (elliptical, treadmill, bike, etc.) that measures heart rate via a hard grip are less accurate and should not be solely used to measure heart rate when working out.

Fitness companies, such as Peloton and Orangetheory Fitness, that utilize a chest strap to monitor heart rate are much more accurate and can be used to adequately determine your heart rate if you do not own a smartwatch.

4. What does our heart rate say about our overall health?
In general, heart rate shows how active and in (or out) of shape someone is. Having a lower resting heart rate in the 50s or 60s typically indicates someone is in good health and overall good shape. I always check heart rate during yearly physicals because if someone’s heart rate and blood pressure are not under control, they are at a higher risk for developing a variety of health problems, including a stroke. These risks are increased in patients 40+ so ensuring you have a yearly physical is very important.

5. What are some ways we can keep our heart health in check?
There are quite a few things you can do on a daily basis to ensure your heart health is in check. Make sure you are getting the recommended 150 minutes of exercise weekly, which roughly translates to 30 minutes, five days a week. While it has become trendy to ensure you hit 10,000 steps a day, I instead recommend focusing more on the duration of time spent working out versus the number of steps you’ve taken in a single day.

Also, make sure you are mindful of what you are eating. Focus on eating more whole foods with less saturated fats – think leafy greens, veggies, fruits vs. starchy, carb-based foods.

Lastly, make sure you work with your primary care provider to know the heart rate numbers you should be aiming for, whether that is when you are at rest or working out.

6. Is there anything else people should be aware of regarding heart health?
The most important take home is to stay active. While you do not need to use a heart rate monitor, I recommend you understand your healthy ranges and try to stay within those when active – whether that is walking or intense cardio. Also, remember that no two days are the same. If you are not able to exercise one day, understand that is acceptable. Ensure you are targeting 150 minutes of activity per week to help your heart remain healthy. Lastly, be sure to see your primary care provider annually, who can ensure you are staying on track with your heart health!