10 Things I Learned From My Heart Rate Monitor

Getting intel from a gadget, sad as it may seem, is actually the most accurate way for me to tell when I've got more gas in the tank or when I'm overdoing it during exercise. And once the workout is over, I love seeing the big "calories burned" number on my watch's display.
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Heart rate monitors are an easy and insightful way to get back in touch with your body's signals and rhythms, especially for someone like me.

Like many people who struggle with weight issues, I've somewhat lost that mind-body connection -- that mindfulness that tells me when I'm truly hungry, full, tired, spent, energetic or none of the above.

Here's how mine works. I wear a chest strap with a removable transmitter underneath my sports bra. The transmitter picks up electric signals from my heart beat through my skin and sends that information to my watch (they also have models that send the data to a smart phone). Then, based on an algorithm that takes my weight, height, sex and age into account, the watch calculates the total number of calories burned during the workout.

Getting intel from a gadget, sad as it may seem, is actually the most accurate way for me to tell when I've got more gas in the tank or when I'm overdoing it during exercise. And once the workout is over, I love seeing the big "calories burned" number on my watch's display.

I have the Polar FT7 model and I can honestly say it has changed my (workout) life.

Here are 10 things I've learned since getting my heart rate monitor.

Check out HuffPost's Healthy Living for a rundown of even more fitness trackers.

10. The calories-burned counter on exercise machines is so inaccurate, it's practically useless.

Same goes for the claims that exercise teachers make about their classes. Trainers who claim you can burn 1,000 calories in their classes make me LOL. They're as bad as the exercise machine displays that claim you burned 400 calories after 30 minutes on the elliptical machine. The fact is that exercise machines and overzealous trainers have no idea how hard I worked, which means they can't tell me how many calories I burned.

Once you get a heart rate monitor, run a few miles at a speed of 10 mph (or your own moderate pace) and take note of a few things: how many calories you burned overall, your average heart rate, and your highs and lows. When you have a baseline for what a jog feels like, you can use it to judge how intensely you're exercising during future workouts. For me, jogging four miles at a 10 mph pace averages out to around 90 calories for every 10 minutes, and it's easy for me to compare other exercises to how I feel during a moderate jog.

9. Most of the time, I'm not really trying that hard.

When it comes to exercise, I like to give myself a lot of credit -- for anything. Waking up. Getting dressed. Putting on deodorant.

Hike to the Hollywood Sign: 50 minutes, 301 calories, 1 sure-fire out-of-towners activity

But the heart rate monitor makes it easier for me to be honest with myself about how much effort I'm actually putting into my health, instead of overestimating how hard I worked.

8. But sometimes, I do too much.

Nobody wins when you vomit on the treadmill or do enough push ups to turn your triceps into jelly, (hello, Uncle Rhabdo!) and the heart rate monitor is one way to guard against over-exertion.

I set minimum and maximum limits on my watch, and lo-and-behold, when I feel like I'm about to vomit or die, my watch starts beeping. It's crazy to think that I need this toy to tell me when to slow down, but it just goes to show how disconnected some people (like me) can be from their body's signals.

Calculating one's maximum safe heart rate is a squishy science. Traditionally, trainers have advised people to take 220 and subtract your age to get the figure, but a recent large-scale study of over 3,000 men and women has found a new, more complex and accurate way to calculate the figure, reports the New York Times. Check out the calculator here to figure out your maximum heart rate, as well as target heart rates for interval training and active rest.

7. Using exercise to "burn off that dessert" is damn near impossible and misses the point.

"Weight loss happens in the kitchen" is a common phrase kicked around in the weight loss community -- but I didn't really understand it until I started to wear a heart rate monitor. Pre-Polar, I'd go on a hike or take a spin class and feel absolutely justified in indulging in a little more ice cream, a little more chocolate, a little more whatever.

Canoeing in Wisconsin: 120 minutes, 330 calories, 2 sore arms

Now I know that the 450 calories I burn on a hike doesn't even come close to canceling out one cup of my favorite ice cream (580 calories for one cup of Ben & Jerry's Phish Food). And for people trying to lose weight, the heart rate monitor will help make it even more obvious that certain extra helpings are counter-productive.

6. It's the ups and downs that burn the most calories.

If weight loss is your end-game and you're a very busy person, you already know that interval training is a faster way to burn more calories than steadily paced exercise. For instance, jogging at a steady pace for 55 minutes burns about 455 calories for me, but a 45 minute SoulCycle class, with its alternating sprints, jogs, active rest periods and hill climbs, helps me burn 570 calories.

I had seen the studies about how interval training burns fat and increases aerobic capacity and athletic performance, but it never really hit home until I began recording my workouts. Looking back on the years I spent carelessly chugging away at an elliptical machine makes me want to say, "D'oh!'

5. A lot of everyday activities are as good as exercise when it comes to calorie burning.

Once I started getting the hang of recording my exercise classes, I started wondering how ordinary activities measured up. Thanks to my heart rate monitor, I know that shoveling snow for about 35 minutes burns 230 calories -- about the same as a 20-minute jog. A 45-minute game of hoops (half-court) burns 350 calories for me. And of course, sleep burns the most calories of all. If that's not a motivation for overweight people to get more sleep, I don't know what is.

Knowing makes all the difference. In a 2007 experiment, Harvard researchers divided hotel maids into two groups. Researchers followed one group around as they did their job, and for every chore or task the maid did, the researcher explained how many calories they were burning. The other group was left to work as usual.

One month later, researchers re-visited both groups and found that the maids who had been educated about the physical activity they were doing experienced decreases in blood pressure and weight. Whether the effects were due to the placebo effect, a change in mindset or the adoption of healthier behaviors, knowledge is power.

4. Just because I'm sweating, that doesn't mean I'm doing a really tough cardio workout.

When I'm snowboarding, it's often so cold that I can't feel myself sweating at all. Yet at the end of a 2.5-hour snowboarding session, I've burned 800 calories. During a 90-minute hot yoga class, I'm lucky if I break 100 calories.

Snowboarding at Big Bear: 150 minutes, 800 calories, 1 snowboarding convert (my husband)

Before I got my heart rate monitor, I just assumed that if a workout left me dripping in sweat (like after said hot yoga class), I must have worked really hard. But sweat isn't a good way to tell if you got a good cardio session in. Instead, it's about whether or not you approached your maximum heart rate -- and how often.

3. Burning calories isn't the point of EVERY physical activity.

Having said that, if you're using your heart rate monitor to determine which exercises you will do, you're missing the point. Not all physical activity is meant to get your heart pumping. Flexibility and balance are just as important. For me, yoga is absolutely necessary to make up for all those times I short-changed my post-workout stretching. Incorporating yoga, walking and other low-impact physical activities into my workouts are what help keep me strong enough to do the intense stuff.

2. The more weight I lose, the fewer calories I burn. The stronger I get, the fewer calories I burn.

When I first started going to Sweat Garage, a treadmill-based bootcamp class, jogging at a speed of 6 mph was enough to send my heart rate soaring. A year later, I have to sprint at speeds of 8 and 9 mph to get my heart pumping that fast. I love my progress, but I view it with a mixture of pride and dread -- workouts have to keep getting more difficult to achieve the same number of calories burned.

Cross-country skiing: 60 minutes, 400 calories, 2 sore thighs

Why? For one, your heart simply becomes more efficient at pumping blood to the rest of your body after practicing any high-stress activity over a long period of time. Secondly, losing weight also means there's less physical body to move around -- which means your heart doesn't have to work as hard to keep things running smoothly. Not adjusting for these realities results in that dreaded plateau.

1. Motivation comes in many forms.

Exercise is important, but motivation can be hard to come by. I'm not someone who "glows" or feels invigorated after a workout. Instead, I look at the numbers on my heart rate monitor and feel proud of my progress. I love entering the stats into my MyFitnessPal account and seeing all the numbers change over time. It's motivation that works for me, and I had no idea how much I drive I really had until I started using my heart rate monitor.

Life change is the ultimate goal, so finding ways to motivate yourself is invaluable -- especially if you're new to frequent exercise.

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