Heart Help

Monitors are the first health biosensors that actually work

by JP Faber | Updated 14 Oct 2015 at 6:28 AM

Is it a good thing if you’re heart is beating like a rabbit?

It depends. If you’re sitting still, with no clear and present danger that requires you to fight or flee, it’s probably a bad thing. It usually means you are wildly stressed out.

If you are running down the beach in your jogging shorts, however, it’s probably a good thing.

Regularly elevating your heart rate is a very good thing, actually, and it's why most doctors recommend getting 20 to 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise four days a week. When you elevate your heart rate through cardio exercises, you improve the flexibility of your blood vessels, lower your blood pressure, and increase the oxygen to the brain.

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But what is the maximum rate you should elevate your heart rate to if you are exercising — and how do you know if you’ve reached it?

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“The usual calculation is 220 minus your age. That is the maximum, and you want to reach 80 percent of that for your training rate,” said Dr. William Roberts, a professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota and an expert in sports medicine.

So, for a 50-year-old, the maximum heart rate is 170, and the target for a good workout should be 80 percent of that, or about 135 beats per minute. Achieving this optimal rate is one reason why athletes hire coaches to monitor their heart rates while they’re working out.

Now, thanks to technology, you can hack your own heart rate and get some useful feedback along the way.

Now, thanks to technology, you can hack your own heart rate and get some useful feedback along the way. Portable heart rate monitors are the first truly accurate mobile biosensor devices on the market today.

Heart rate monitors come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are numerous smartphone apps that measure your heart rate when you place your finger on the camera. While these don’t work when you are exercising — you have to stop to take the measurement — they are quite accurate. The most popular is the Instant Heart Rate by Azumio, which you can download starting at $1.99.

If you want something you can use while in motion, you can use a chest monitor. Garmin, Polar and Wahoo all make chest monitors for about $50. All provide accurate readings, though you have to strap on a device the size of a pack of playing cards.

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If that seems a little annoying (which it is), you can double down for $100 and get something a little sleeker, namely the AmpStrip — a flat piece of wired cloth that sticks to your rib cage. Like other chest monitors, AmpStrip links to your smart phone via blue tooth, so this information can go to a health app and be forward to your doctor.

If you want to go stylishly high-end, you can buy the Ralph Lauren Polo Tech Shirt for $295. Using bio-sensing silver threads, it not only measures heart rate but also movement intensity for estimates of calorie burn and distances covered. It also uses a small, snap-on "black box" to transmit the data.

Perhaps the best — though not the cheapest — of the mobile heart rate devices are the wristwatch types. The Apple Watch, starting at about $350, has finally gotten its readout to work accurately, though it doesn’t work well when you’re moving. For that you need a dedicated sport-tracking device, like the Adidas miCoach SmartRun, or the FitBit Surge. These go for about $250 to $350 and are 75 percent to 90 percent accurate. They also measure other things, such as movement.

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But are these devices worth it?

“I do think these devices are useful,” Roberts told LifeZette. “If you are just exercising for fitness, it’s not a useful as for someone training for the Olympic team. But it gives you something to monitor.”

They can also potentially reveal a medical issue revolving around an irregular heart rhythm.

“The main thing is learning how to correlate heart rate with workouts,” Roberts said. “Doing some recording can help you know when you are reaching the optimal levels.”

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