Heart rate apps

Don’t rely on your smartphone to track your heart rate - they shouldn’t be used as a serious indicator of your heart health.

Increasingly there are a number of apps that measure your heart rate. People often use these apps when exercising to assess their fitness and intensity of their exercise regimen. Apps that measure your heart rate generally use two methods:

  • touching your fingertip to the phone's built-in camera (called contact photoplethysmography)
  • holding a camera in front of the face (non-contact photoplethysmography).

Do the apps work — what is the evidence?

Studies have found huge differences in the accuracy of heart-rate tracking apps. 

A study testing the accuracy of four commercially available heart rate apps (randomly selected) using two phones, the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 found substantial differences in accuracy between the four apps. In some apps there were differences of more than 20 beats per minute compared to ECG in over 20% of the measurements. The non-contact apps performed less well than the contact apps, particularly at higher heart rates and lower body temperatures. The non-contact apps tended to overestimate higher heart rates.2 

  Be aware - use heart rate apps with caution
Use these apps with caution. The accuracy of many of these apps are questionable as they have not been tested and validated for accuracy.  There is no law requiring validation of these apps and therefore no way for consumers to know if the results are accurate.

For most people, inaccuracies in heart rate measurements are not a big deal, but for elite athletes and people with heart problems who try to keep their heart rate within a certain range, these devices might not be the best choice. Talk to your doctor about what might be right for you.

Ways to measure heart rate 

Ways to measure heart rate Description
Measuring your pulse Your pulse is the impulse that is generated with each heartbeat. It can be felt at various locations on the body such as the wrist and neck. In most cases the heart rate (each actual beat of the heart) will correlate very well with the pulse rate (each beat felt at the wrist for example). Therefore, most of the time the pulse rate is used as a substitute to check the heart rate. Learn more about how to check your pulse.

Pulse oximeter

Health professionals will often use a pulse oximeter to check your pulse quickly. These are fairly accurate devices which are placed over a fingertip, whereby a sensor detects pulsations. Most blood pressure machines will also assess the pulse rate automatically. These devices can be bought online and in many pharmacies. Please beware that the accuracy cannot be guaranteed unless verified by an independent auditor (Your GPs device is required to be checked yearly). One practical option could be to have your device checked for its accuracy by your nurse.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

The most accurate method for assessing the actual heart rate is by having an electrocardiogram (ECG). In this painless test, wires are placed on your chest and a machine measures the electrical activity of your heart. It is typically used to assess for and diagnose different sorts of heart problems.
An ECG is one of many tools available to assess heart health, so it will not give you the whole picture. GPs are often able to do the ECG in their surgery (at a cost, generally between $40-70). Hospitals can do them for free if you’re eligible, but it must be medically required. Read more about ECGs.

Tips when using a heart rate app

Do (✔)

  • Talk with your doctor about whether it is necessary for you to measure your heart rate regularly. Heart rate is only one part of the puzzle of total heart health and fitness.    
  • Talk to your doctor if you think you detect:
    • a very low pulse rate (under 60, or under 40-50 if you’re very active) at rest
    • a very high pulse rate (over 100) at rest
    • an irregular pulse.

Don’t (✘)

  • Don't rely on apps that measure your heart rate as an indicator of your heart health.  
  • Don't make changes to your heart medication based on the  heart rate readings from the app.

Learn more

The following websites have more information on apps for atrial fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation app reviews Practical Apps, Canada

References

  1. Consumers warned about accuracy of heart rate apps European Society of Cardiology, 2017
  2. Thomas Coppetti, Andreas Brauchlin, Simon Muggler et al. Accuracy of smartphone apps for heart rate measurement. Eur J Prev Cardiol. 2017 Aug;24(12):1287-1293. 
  3. Consumers warned about accuracy of heart rate apps Science Daily, 2017
  4. Vandenberk T, Stans J, Mortelmans C, et al. Clinical Validation of Heart Rate Apps: Mixed-Methods Evaluation Study. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2017 Aug 25;5(8):e129.
  5. Parpinel M, Scherling L, Lazzer S, Della Mea V. Reliability of heart rate mobile apps in young healthy adults: exploratory study and research directions. J Innov Health Inform. 2017 Jun 30;24(2):921.
Last reviewed: 05 Nov 2018