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 and rhythm. People often use these apps when exercising to assess their fitness and intensity of their exercise regimen. They are also sometimes used for people with a condition called atrial fibrillation. Apps that measure your heart rate generally use one of three 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)
- link to a specific external device.
On this page you will find information on:
- Do the apps work - what is the evidence?
- Ways to measure heart rate
- Tips when using a heart rate app
Do the apps work — what is the evidence?
To date no studies categorically recommend the use of heart rate apps. The following is a summary of recent studies assessing heart rate apps.
|Summary of recent studies|
Li et al (2019) conducted a review to explore the current state of mobile phone apps in assessing heart rate and rhythm.
Pipitprapat et al (2018) compared 3 heart rate monitoring apps with simultaneous standard ECG monitoring in the adult patients at the critical care unit. The apps assessed were Instant HR, Cardiio: HR Monitor and Runtastic HR Monitor.
JanBouts et al (2018) compared two, iOS-based smartphone heart rate apps, Runtastic Heart Rate Monitor and Pulse Tracker PRO by Runtastic (Runtastic) and Instant Heart Rate+: Heart Rate and Pulse Monitor by Azumio (Instant Heart Rate), when compared to the standard ECG and a Polar® T31 uncoded heart rate monitor, at varying exercise intensities. Findings: the authors concluded that the results were not consistent or significant enough to suggest that the apps are accurate or valid. The authors recommend that more studies be conducted to determine the effects of extra movement, incorrect finger positioning, phone case size, finger temperature, and wet or dry conditions on the apps’ ability to measure heart rate. This would determine if these co-factors account for the discrepancy, or if the technology behind these smartphone-based apps needs to be improved to have more external validity.
Coppetti et al (2017) tested the accuracy of four commercially available heart rate apps (randomly selected) using two phones, the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 .
|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. However, some of the apps can be useful and appropriate for patients with atrial fibrillation. If this is you, then please discuss with your cardiologist or GP before using one of them. For most patients with atrial fibrillation, routine monitoring of the heart rhythm is not required once they have been stabilised on medication.
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.
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.
Tips when using a heart rate app
- 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.
- If you have atrial fibrillation and your doctor is having difficulty stabilising you on medication, discuss with them whether an atrial fibrillation monitoring app might be appropriate.
- 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 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.
The following websites have more information on apps for atrial fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation app reviews Practical Apps, Canada
- Consumers warned about accuracy of heart rate apps European Society of Cardiology, 2017
- 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.
- Consumers warned about accuracy of heart rate apps Science Daily, 2017
- 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.
- 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.