Fit Trend: Heart Rate Monitors

More studios than ever are incorporating heart rate trackers into classes—but should they?

Orangetheory Fitness

Classes at Orangetheory Fitness rely on heart rate monitors. Photo provided to

First it was pedometers. Then came fancy fitness trackers. Now, studios and gyms around town are embracing the data-driven health trend by using heart rate monitors in group exercise classes.

Orangetheory Fitness, a circuit training studio in Brighton, is one such gym. The studio has its own brand of heart rate monitors, and students use them to ensure they’re staying in certain intensity zones throughout class.

“There’s a big thing about accountability,” says Orangetheory’s fitness director Kerri Thomas, adding that monitors provide students with more information about their workout. “With a heart rate monitor, it’s live-time feedback. You can’t be faking it on a Spin bike. [Trainers] can’t be fooled by their client anymore.”

Orangetheory isn’t alone. B/Spoke, a cycling studio in the Financial District, gives students the option of using heart rate monitors that measure everything from average and maximum heart rate to calories burned and distance pedaled. Beacon Hill’s Zone 5, meanwhile, bases its bootcamp-style group fitness program on using heart rate monitors to inform students of how hard they’re working—with a live feed of the readings posted on a monitor at the front of the room.

B/Spoke cofounder Mark Partin says the monitors give students a concrete way to see their progress beyond weight loss. “We normalize a riders’ performance and table it in a way that they can track real progress on the inside, as opposed to what you can pinch in the mirror,” he says.

Common as they’ve become, however, Aaron Baggish, associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, says the majority of exercisers don’t need heart rate monitors.

“For the average casual person just going to the gym to stay healthy, a heart rate monitor’s not going to make much of a difference,” he says. “There’s definitely something to be said for what heart rate monitors can do to guide training for people, but there’s a lot of heart rate monitor use that’s really not much more than a spectator sport.”

Further, Baggish says most people aren’t even getting entirely accurate information from their trackers, since most methods for estimating peak heart rate—the most common being subtracting your age from 220—leave plenty of room for error. “Unless you actually have your peak heart rate measured by someone who knows how to measure it, it’s based on guesses that are almost always wrong,” he says. “Its really all predicated on people knowing their individual bodies, and that requires more than just going to the gym and strapping on the heart rate monitor.”

The bottom line, Baggish says, is heart rate monitors can’t hurt your workout—they just might not be doing a whole lot to help it, either.

“People love numbers in this day and age, and even love numbers when they don’t necessarily know what to do with them,” he says. “Heart rate monitors are a great example of a set of numbers that are only as useful as the knowledge base you have to apply them.”