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Working out to lose weight? Get a basic heart rate monitor

Polar heart rate monitorYour body burns fat when your heart’s working at 60 to 85 percent of its capacity—and intervals help, too. But show of hands: Who knows when they’re in the fat-burning zone? That’s what we thought.

Turns out my 5K runs in Prospect Park were burning fat (I definitely lost some weight last summer), but it was a fluke. Or so said Jeff Dolgan, an exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch Miami who strapped a heart-rate monitor on me so we could figure out exactly what I needed to be doing to meet my goals. “Running without knowing if you’re meeting your goals is just junk running,” said Dolgan, which was his tough-love way of encouraging me to make sure my workouts are, well, working.

That’s why heart rate monitors, a gadget I’d left to the team-in-training crowd, are good for the new or aspiring athlete. They give you a good indication of your fitness level and help make your workouts more efficient says, Kirsten Marino, co-owner of Slope Sports in Brooklyn and a marathoner. “Often the target zone is lower than you think. Some people assume you have to run as fast and as hard as you can to burn fat. Or they put the elevation way up on the treadmill. A heart rate monitor tells you exactly where you need to be working.”

Polar FT4 heart rate monitor
The Polar FT4 heart rate watch reads the data from the chest strap transmitter (not pictured, sorry)

A simple fitness heart rate monitor is a chest strap with a sensor in it that you wear like a belt around your lower ribcage. Ladies, it tucks right under your jog bra. The sensor radios your heart rate to a wristwatch, which is typically sold with the strap, or to your treadmill, elliptical, or bike. Dolgan trained me on the Polar FT4, which is simpler to work than an alarm clock. It costs about $100 and is more than adequate for basic treadmill work and getting in shape.

“Buy simple or ask yourself where you’re going with it,” confirms Marino. You may want one that grows with you (and costs upwards of $300), if you’re training outdoors for a marathon. “The more sophisticated ones do a lot more like track laps, store workouts, and do all the math for you,” says Marino. But if you’re not addicted to it and lose the programming guide, it could be source of serious frustration.

How not to have purchase-related palpitations when browsing for one? Some buying tips from Slope Sports’s Kirsten Marino:

1. Consider a fabric strap. The hard-plastic sensor used for 30-plus years is being phased out by a silver ion conductive fabric that feels much more comfortable for women, says Marino.

2. Look for a coded model that won’t get your heart rate confused with the marathoner on the treadmill next to you at the gym.

3. Don’t buy a pulseometer. They’re unreliable and not the same thing as a heart rate monitor, says Marino. “You’d be better off taking your own pulse.”