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Originally published Sunday, June 9, 2013 at 5:09 AM

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A heart-rate monitor keeps you exercising to the max

High-tech gadgetry has entered the exercise world to the point of distraction. But there’s one gadget that’s essential: the heart-rate monitor.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Workouts have become so high-tech lately that people look more like they are undergoing scientific testing than exercising. Gyms are lined with people hooked up to iPods while watching TVs attached to machines that cost more than my first car.

I consider myself old school, with the philosophy that a workout is a time to zero in and focus on my body, as opposed to distracting myself through it. However, there is one gadget I use consistently, not for distraction, but for efficiency and results: a heart-rate monitor.

Heart-rate monitors are two-piece devices: The strap goes around your chest at sternum height, and the watch goes around your wrist. The sensors in the chest strap send a signal to the wristwatch, letting you know how fast your heart is beating during exercise. Most will even sync up to a cardio machine and show your heart rate on the machine’s display. Newer models not only track your heart rate, but the distance run, calories burned and calories from fat burned. They will log your progress over time.

Why is tracking heart rate so important during exercise?

Because it tells you exactly how hard you are working. Exercise can be a bit of a mental game, and intensity can be hard to judge. Sometimes you just can’t trust how you feel. It can be difficult to tell if your workout really is hard or if it just feels hard that day from low energy levels, hormones or, more often than not, because your head just isn’t in the game. Going by feeling is subjective, but your heart rate does not lie.

Putting your heart-rate monitor to practical use is easy. Put it on and enter in your personal stats — height, age and weight — and start exercising. Based on those stats, your monitor will not only let you know how many times per minute your heart is beating, but at what intensity range you are working. Generally, barring no special limitations from a doctor, one would want to work within 65 to 85 percent of one’s maximum heart rate. Maximum heart rate is calculated by subtracting your age from 220.

Your monitor will tell you both what your heart rate is at any given moment and what percentage of your maximum rate you are working at. If you fall below 65 percent, you know to bump it up. If your heart rate has shot into the 90 percent range, you know to pull it back for a bit and recover.

Without a heart-rate monitor, you would need to stop constantly and take your pulse, which can get tedious.

While heart-rate monitors are mostly used for cardio, you can use one for any physical activity. Polar, a leading heart-rate monitor brand, even has one specifically designed for strength training. Their FT80 will time your rest intervals and prompt you to move to the next exercise to make sure you get cardiovascular benefits from your strength training, as well as muscle gains.

As long as your heart rate stays within range, you know you are working to intensity.

With all the gadgets out there, it’s tough to know what’s right for your workout. The best way to judge is to ask yourself: Is this going to take my focus away from my workout or help me improve it?

Heart rate monitors, hands down, are the most helpful tool those who are committed to their goals can add to their exercise arsenal.

Kelly Turner is a fitness expert and freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter: @KellyTurnerFit

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