Knowledge is power, especially in exercise. The more you know, I think, the better you can work out. And knowing your heart rate is one of those things that can affect your entire workout.
First, take a look at this handy dandy Target Heart Rate Chart (+/- 5 bpm):
Unlike “perceived effort” (how hard you think you’re working – which, by the way, can also be very helpful), your heart rate will literally show you, in numbers, how hard you’re working out. You may think that you’re busting your butt, but if your heart rate’s only 130, well… there’s room to work harder. And, you guessed it, the harder you work out, the more calories you burn, and the faster you get in shape.
*Note: see the “anaerobic threshold zone?” You may enter into that zone during really, really tough workouts. Going above that for any extended period of time can be dangerous due to overexertion and can/probably will lead to exhaustion.
After my beloved neon-green Timex Ironman broke 2 weeks ago, I decided I was going to take a step up and get something more advanced. I did some research and decided on the Polar FT7–all of the features I need at a price that isn’t too crazy. You plug in your age, weight, etc. up front and it will tell you what your heart rate is, how many calories you burn, and (of course) the time exercising. After the workout, it’ll give you a summary of how long you spent in each zone.
So far, I love having a heart rate monitor. Sometimes I use it just out of curiosity (tried to see how many calories I burn playing indoor soccer, because I usually feel like I’m going to DIE), and managed to get to 190 before the referee caught me wearing the watch and made me take it off. Other times, like in swim workouts where gliding through the water is sometimes so soothing I forget to go fast–seriously–it reminds me that I’m not working hard enough and I need to get my butt in gear.
Bottom line: I highly recommend it. You can find some really basic ones on Amazon for as little as ~$25.
Would love to hear some experiences with HR monitors, whether it helped, was totally useless, or somewhere in between.