Heart rate monitors, you’ve probably seen people using them while out running or in the gym on the treadmill or exercise bike. Heart rate monitor users make frequent glances at the wrist unit and possibly take notes, but what are these heart rate devices and how do they help people in their fitness goals?

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Firstly, heart rate monitors (HRM) are not just training aids for athletes and fitness fanatics. Anybody starting out on a exercise regime possibly just to get fit or maybe to lose body weight, should consider buying and learning how to use a heart rate monitor.

In understanding how a heart rate monitor could help you in your journey to better health, a quick overview of the heart pumping action and the related bits and pieces of a HRM might help.

I think it is safe to say anybody reading this article has a functioning heart muscle beating and pumping blood around your body. Your heart pumps, under substantial pressure, oxygen rich blood to every cell in your body.

Within the cell, oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide and other waste products. Now under much lower pressure, the pumping action of the heart moves the oxygen depleted blood to the lungs were the blood is refreshed with oxygen and cleansed of carbon dioxide.

The newly oxygen refreshed blood returns to the heart and whole the cycle starts again. (This is of course a simplistic overview of what is a complex system)

The heart does not pump blood in a continuous fashion it is a muscle, so acts like a muscle, contracting and relaxing. It is this contracting and relaxing we feel as a beat.

The contraction part of the heart action is called the systolic phase, the relaxing part is called the diastolic phase.

When your blood pressure is measured the systolic phase is measured over the diastolic phase, for example a person may have a blood pressure of 120 over 70. Broken down, this equates to a measurement of 120 mmHg when the heart is contracting, pumping blood into the arteries and 70 mmHg when the heart is in the relaxed, non-pumping state.

Measurements are taken in terms of millimetres of mercury (mmHg) using a device called a sphygmomanometer.
At rest the average healthy adult heart beats an average 70 to 80 times every minute.

The timing of each heart beat is taken care of by many body systems. The system that concerns us here is the electrical activity the heart and nerve systems produce to induce contraction of the heart muscle.

It is the electrical activity sent through the heart helping create and maintain a rhythmic beat that the ‘general user’ more popular heart rate monitors use as the system to calculate heart rate figures.

Heart rate monitors have two main components. A strap that generally wraps around the upper mid chest area and a wrist unit not unlike a standard watch.

The chest strap contains two sensors each in contact with the skin ‘picking’ up the electrical beat pattern of the heart plus a transmitter that sends the pattern to the wrist unit.
The wrist unit is not unlike a standard wrist watch, most can display time and date, but unlike a normal watch, HRM wrist units display extra HR data sent from the transmitter on the users chest strap.

Many aspects of fitness, weight loss and strength can be gained from the calculations of your heart rate at specific times in your training routine. It is clear then how, if read correctly, important the HRM tool can be.

Now you know how the HRM gets to know how many times your heart beats each minute, in the next section I will discuss how best to use this very important data to achieve your particular goal.

Next Instalment: How to use your heart rate monitor.

Paul