Need some extra bling for the gym? Then strap on a heart rate monitor, a device worn while working out that measures heart rate. It’s a great tool to help athletes find their exercise sweet spot — where the body is being pushed just hard enough without the risk of injury or overuse. But they may not be vital for an effective time at the gym. While these trackers are a great (and fun!) way to measure how hard we’re working, listening to the body is also reliable for a heart-pumping workout.

Turn Up the Beat — Why It Matters

Monitoring heart rate is a good tool to help beginners work out at the right intensity, and many elite athletes use them when concerned about hitting specific fitness goalsUse of heart rate monitors by endurance athletes: lessons from triathletes. O’Toole, M.L., Douglas, P.S., Hiller, W.D. Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, University of Tennessee-Campbell Clinic, Memphis, TN. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 1998 Sep;38(3):181-7.Evaluation of heart rate as a method for assessing moderate intensity physical activity. Strath, S.J., Swartz, A.M., Bassett, D.R., et al. Department of Exercise Science and Sport Management, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2000 Sep;32(9 Suppl):S465-70.. So it may be worth getting a heart rate monitor (most are watches!) to more objectively see how hard we’re really working at the gymPrediction of energy expenditure from heart rate monitoring during submaximal exercise. Keytel, L.R., Goedecke, J.H., Noakes, T.D., et al. MRC/UCT Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Unit, University of Cape Town Medical School, Newlands, South Africa. Journal of Sports Science, 2005 Mar;23(3):289-97.Heart rate monitoring: applications and limitations. Achten, J., Jeukendrup, A.E. Human Performance Laboratory, School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, United Kingdom. Sports Medicine, 2003;33(7):517-38.. Exercising in our target heart rate zone assures that we’re getting our fitness bang for our buck: burning enough calories, but not going overboard and risking injury. Monitoring heart rate may also be useful if we’re headed to the gym for different fitness goals. Some experts suggest fat-burning and aerobic training fall into different heart-rate categories, the typical fat-burning zone between 50 and 75 percent of our heart-rate max, while aerobic training falling at 75-85 percent. But before we reach for the watch, other research states there isn’t a real difference between these two intensity zonesQuantifying differences in the “fat burning” zone and the aerobic zone: implications for training. Carey, DG. Health and Human Performance Laboratory, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Journal 2009 October; 23(7): 2090-5.. Fortunately, working out to the right degree is also based on individual perception, and can as simple as doing the talk test, or rating how we’re feeling from a scale of zero – 10, which is also known as Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE).

And between me and you (and everyone else), heart rate levels can vary: They depend on the person and differ based on factors including genetics, fitness level, nutrition, and surrounding environment. Several types of medications can alter resting and active heart rate, tooThe importance of reducing heart rate in cardiovascular diseases: effects of Ivabradine. Vizzardi, E., Bonadei, I., D’Aloia, A., et al. Department of Experimental and Applied Medicine, University of Study of Brescia, Brescia, Italy. Minerva Medicine, 2011 Oct;102(5):373-9..

Follow Your Heart — Your Action Plan

Lucky for us, using a monitor is pretty simple. First thing’s first: figuring out what heart rate we want to reach. This number is normally 50-85 percent of our maximum heart rate: the largest number of beats per minute a person can reach when pushing it to the max. This can be calculated with some simple math, no wizards required! Just subtract your age from 220. This well-known formula, however, can vary up to 10 percent, says Greatist Expert John Mandrola, which means your maximum heart rate could be 20 beats higher or lower than predicted. There are also target and max heart rate charts that act as good guides for knowing what digits to hit. Once we know our number, we simply have to check the monitor to see if we need to slow down or pick up the pace. (Drop and give me 50 more, please.) Mandrola also notes that a heart monitor is great to make sure we don’t go too hard on easy days.

There are other perks to these gadgets, too. Certain models also track speed and distance, measure calorie burn, and can even hook up to a computer and analyze a workout! But remember, buying this gadget is definitely not necessary for every athlete, and it’s only an estimate for how we’re really feeling. If you’re in tune with your body and exertion level, there’s no need to go-go gadget.

The Takeaway

A heart rate monitor is a useful tool to make sure individuals are working out at the right intensity level. However, they’re not crucial for everyone — listening to your body can work just as well.

This article has been approved by experts Dr. John MandrolaandKelvin Gary.

Do you use a heart rate monitor when you work out? Love it or hate it? Let us know below!