Do you recommend that clients wear pedometers or heart rate monitors? Why or why not?

Apr 29, 2009

Tricks of the Trade

I require each of my clients to purchase a heart monitor and wear it when we train together. Here’s why:

  1. We both wear a Polar F series model so I can monitor heart rate without having to take the client’s pulse, grab his wrist or stop him from exercising.
  2. I always check a client’s resting pulse at the beginning of the session to determine whether my plan for the day matches her current resting state.
  3. The heart monitor shows the client his average heart rate, maximum heart rate, calories expended and percentage of calories coming from fat. This information educates the client as to what activities or positions burn the most calories, the concept of anaerobic threshold (AT), how it feels to train at or above the AT and how to determine rest periods between sets.
  4. The heart monitor helps me make better choices in program design. I can tell when a client has adapted to a particular mode or intensity and when it’s time to change it up. The monitor also presents a clearer picture of the relationship between volume and intensity. As intensity increases, volume will decrease. As the client’s fitness improves, I slowly add back volume while maintaining intensity.
  5. For a competitive athlete, the monitor helps dial in the correct amount of time and intensity for our pregame warm-up or evaluate postcompetition performance.
  6. A monitor helps motivate a client by recording her daily caloric expenditure and weekly totals. It also educates her about her own body’s physiology.
  7. Monitors are cool.
  8. John Platero
    Director of Education, National   Council for Certified Personal   Trainers
    Newbury Park, California

Pedometers and heart rate monitors are tools that fitness professionals can use to help clients determine activity and intensity levels in their programs. These tools serve a useful purpose by providing objective measures in exercise programs. When used properly, they can give clients constant reminders of exercise frequency (pedometers) and intensity (heart rate monitors). That being said, I do not rely on them as the best means of assessing activity and intensity. I am not a big fan of relying on numbers, and I teach a combination of methods, including common sense, to keep track of exercise.

First, let me talk briefly about my use of pedometers. Pedometers are a great way to make people aware of how often they move during the day. Many clients believe they move more than they actually do, and pedometers help clear up those misconceptions. However, many clients do not use pedometers properly, and they become fixated on the “10,000-step rule.” Then, if they do not complete the 10,000 steps, they feel bad about themselves. This is not motivating in the long run. Also, many pedometers are based on a “standard.” I have yet to meet or work with a “standard human being.” For these reasons, I choose to use pedometers only to make people generally aware of their activity levels. I prefer that my clients measure their activity in time and intensity instead.

Intensity is another important factor that clients often underestimate. Many believe they are overworking or working harder than they are. I have used heart rate monitors to make them aware of their heart rate during exercise. Plus, I do recommend that my post-cardiac-rehab clients and diabetic clients use a good monitor during cardio workouts as a constant reminder of fluctuations in heart rate. I also tell these clients not to get too attached to the numbers, and I teach them to use RPE (rating of perceived exertion) along with heart rate. It is important in these populations to use both methods, given the higher risk of cardiac events and the effects of medication on heart rate. As a general rule, I do not use heart rate monitors for most people.

The reason I do not want my clients measuring exercise intensity solely with heart rate monitors (especially ones built into cardio machines) is that they can be inaccurate and improperly used. Heart rate monitors often measure pulse rate for 5- to 15-second intervals and correct to the pulse rate for a minute. This method creates a small margin of error. Some people have undiagnosed dysrhythmias, such as premature ventricular contractions, and a monitor will fail to count them and give an inaccurately low number. Some people will then mistakenly increase intensity to stay at the target heart rate with dangerous results. Also, some medications alter heart rate, and I do not want clients to increase intensity inappropriately. 

While I feel heart rate is important to keep track of, I also teach RPE and common sense. I tell my clients that even if the monitor is telling them that their heart rate is too low, they should not increase intensity if they feel their exertion is high on the RPE scale. To be at the right intensity, they should be able to say a phrase but not carry on a conversation. I use palpation for 30 seconds rather than relying on a monitor (even if my client is wearing one) during exercise testing. This method has enabled me on at least two occasions to detect possible dysrhythmias. I was able to suggest that my clients see their doctors before a cardiac event could occur. Needless to say, my clients were grateful when their conditions were caught in time.

Monitoring is important and necessary for successful exercise programming, but should not be used at the expense of common sense. Clients need to be taught more than one way of monitoring their exercise, as well as doing their exercise, to keep things safe and enjoyable.    
Mary Miriani
ACSM Health/Fitness Instructor
Reality Fitness
Naperville, Illinois

I have used pedometers and heart rate monitors with many of my clients. I have found my clients are most successful with these devices when I follow three simple guidelines.

  1. I do my best to keep everything simple. Some pedometers and heart rate monitors attempt to measure, convert or calculate too many numbers, and operating them can be confusing and overwhelming to the average consumer. I stick with the simplest versions of these devices to ensure my clients are successful without being perplexed.
  2. I use the devices, not to show absolute measurement, but rather to show relative improvement based upon the starting point for each client. So, rather than asking clients to hit heart rate numbers that are based upon an average person, I help them use their heart rate monitors to understand what heart rate numbers are right for them. Rather than insisting my clients hit 10,000 steps a day during their first week of using a pedometer, I allow them to calculate their average daily step count, and then we set goals that are appropriate for them.
  3. I try to use these devices to motivate my clients rather than just inform them. For example, if clients simply believe they need to do 8,000 steps a day but don’t understand how many miles that equals or how many calories that burns, it is not as motivating.
  4. Technological devices are great, but it is easy for clients to get too wrapped up in the complexities, measurements and numbers without seeing or feeling any real benefit. I believe it is our goal to help filter these experiences so they can have maximum success.
    Jay Blahnik
    Owner, Jay Blahnik Inc.
    Laguna Beach, California

I prefer using perceived exertion rather than heart rate monitors for my clients. They have not had maximum stress tests, and therefore the information from a monitor would be based on an approximation. If I do use a heart rate monitor, I link it to perceived exertion, allowing clients to determine their level of output based on both the heart rate number and how they feel during their exercise bout.

A pedometer gives clients quantifiable information, such as how many steps they have taken in a day. This information gives feedback on their daily output, allowing them to understand what they do each day. I find that a pedometer is a good tool.

Bethany Diamond
Nautilus Institute Master Trainer
    and Power Bar Team Elite Athlete
Founder, Ovarian Cycle Inc.
Marietta, Georgia

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 6, Issue 5

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