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Swap the Fitness Tracker for a Heart Rate Strap to Get More Accurate Numbers

For pure fitness goals, a chest strap heart monitor might be a better choice than a watch.

Do you want to get the most out of your workout? Do you not want to wear a fitness tracker or smartwatch 24/7? Then a piece of slightly older wearable tech might be a better option for you.

Long before Fitbits and Apple Watches latched themselves onto us like tiny remora filled with circuit boards, runners, cyclists, and other fitness nuts were already using “wearable” tech, in the form of heart rate sensors attached to chest bands and wrist straps. They’re still around, too, though you probably won’t find them on the shelves of Best Buy or Academy Sports. And surprisingly, they haven’t stopped innovating just because their sole function has been replicated by millions of more accessible, marketable gadgets. In fact, they’re considerably more accurate at tracking your heart rate than even the most expensive fitness trackers and watches.

Modern heart rate bands work with Bluetooth for an easy connection to your phone, or the lesser-known ANT+ wireless standard, often used to connect to equipment like high-end bike computers or treadmills for connected heart rate tracking. Phones can use ANT+ too now, and many fitness apps like MapMyFitness (iOS, Android) and Strava (iOS, Android) use this to work with a generic connection that almost all of these heart rate trackers can utilize.

Heart rate chest straps work with ANT+, making them compatible with a wide array of fitness machines and gadgets.
Heart rate chest straps work with ANT+, making them compatible with a wide array of fitness machines and gadgets. Garmin

So what makes these bands a better option than a smartwatch? A few things. One, thanks to specialized electronics, better contact with your body, and proximity to your actual heart, they’re more accurate than a heart rate tracker built into a smartwatch. That’s important if you’re looking for specific data to improve not just your fitness in general, but your performance in particular. Athletes will want that extra accuracy to track their improvements over time.

Two, they’re designed to be used while working out, not every moment of the day. So if you miss your old watch like I do (or just don’t like wearing something on your wrist), and resent an extra gadget giving you notifications all the time, a heart rate band giving you data only when you really need it to improve your fitness might be a better choice.

And three, these things generally use the same kind of “coin” batteries found in quartz watches. (That’s the kind that came after the clockwork watches but before the smartwatches—you know, a Timex.) They last for months, maybe even years if you don’t use them every day, so that’s one fewer gadget that needs a regular charge.

The Wahoo Tickr gives you all the basic functions for just $50, and it's compatible with most fitness apps.
The Wahoo Tickr gives you all the basic functions for just $50, and it’s compatible with most fitness apps. Wahoo

And four, thanks to their being simpler electronics, they’re cheaper than a fitness tracker or smartwatch. The Wahoo Tickr, a simple, no-frills chest band, goes for just fifty bucks on Amazon, and it works with hundreds of fitness apps and workout machines. You can’t find a fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor from a mainstream manufacturer for less than $90. Since most of the other workout functions of a fitness tracker can be replicated by your phone itself—things like GPS for location and speed, wireless Bluetooth and your favorite music playlist, calorie tracking (which is just a function of number-crunching)—there’s no need to spend more if you’re looking at pure workout data.

Now, there are some drawbacks. A band takes some getting used to in terms of comfort. A heart rate band that’s only meant to be used during a workout can’t track your sleep patterns, and it doesn’t give you notifications without reaching for your phone. But not everyone needs or wants those features. If your primary use for a fitness tracker is, well, fitness, you might want to check out a chest strap as an alternative.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »