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I'm big and black and heart rate monitors are terrible for people like me

It wasn't long ago that I shared with you guys my plans to lose weight and lead a healthier lifestyle. I'm happy to report those changes are finally starting to take root (I'm down to 460!!), but there is one aspect about this journey that I wish I didn't have to deal with: tracking my heart rate.

I've always told myself I wasn't going to obsess over numbers and readings in the early days because the most important thing was to buy into a whole new lifestyle, but one of the things I wanted to stay on top of was tracking my heart rate during workouts. Yoga is new and hard for me, so I sought extra validation that I was doing it right.

The only problem is that heart rate monitors can suck for people like me. It's not due to any psychological effects I get from thinking about fitness (I used to get a lot of anxiety about it). It has nothing to do with the quality of the products. There isn't some irrational manufacturer bias for people of certain walks. No, it's all down to pure science.

It feels really bad when you find out there's no single product that's right for you.

First, we have to understand how these heart rate sensors work. There are two types of technology used in products meant for your average consumer. The most common and flexible of those is based on photoplethysmography, an optical technology. It's the form you often see in smartwatches and, in the case of Samsung's Galaxy line, on the back of the phone next to the LED flash.

These types of sensors use light-refracting techniques to read the blood flowing throughout your body. It uses its sensors to detect the rhythm, and an algorithm takes that data to spit out a useful reading to your smartwatch or smartphone app.

It sounds nice until you learn that it's not the most accurate technology. It requires constant contact with the skin. My wrists are larger than average, and I have to suffer a pretty tight fit for the most accurate reading (that's if I can even fit the thing at all). People with exceptionally thin wrists have similar issues because the fit isn't as tight as it needs to be, so this problem isn't exclusive to big people.

Image credit: Fitbit

Image credit: Fitbit

OK, I lost some weight. These fitness trackers and watches should fit a bit better now, but wait, I'm still having issues. Why? Oooooh, all the sweat I produce during my workout is making it tough for the sensor to work correctly. I have to sweat to get my blood flowing. That's just how it works for us big people.

But then I tried one of these things in a sedentary state, and I was still having issues. Why? Well, it's a light-based technology, and it's hard for the sensors to pick up on blood flow through my darker skin. It can read a little bit, but the readings are wildly inaccurate and unreliable.

It's not because device makers are racist — believe me, it drove me crazy seeing headlines like that in the media a few years back when these products were exploding in popularity. I knew how silly it sounded to think these companies were actively trying to make products only meant for fair-skinned people, something that's permissible in the makeup industry, but not so much in tech.

If something doesn't work, you keep trying and looking for something that does.

But the reality of it is that I'm black, and that technology doesn't work as well for my darker skin color as it does for others. Darker skin can't absorb light as well as fairer skin, so it's harder for the light to penetrate my skin cells fully.

That's fine. I tried something less discriminating — one of Polar's more affordable chest strap options. These variants use electrocardiography (ECG) technology to read your pulse. That is, it uses electrodes to capture the physical vibrations of your veins, thus eliminating the issues related to skin color and moisture. In fact, it needs moisture to work properly, which is why manufacturers suggest wetting the contact pad up a bit before your workout. The sweat takes over at some point.

It sounded like it solved all my issues, but I had to endure some harsh discomfort to use it. These things work best when the contact pad stays in touch with your skin and doesn't move. This was a problem with my Polar for one embarrassing reason: the strap wasn't long or flexible enough to wrap around my body comfortably.

The Polar strap did not wrap around me like this.

The Polar strap did not wrap around me like this.

The strap squeezed me like a boa constrictor. It affected blood flow in certain areas of my torso. The immense amount of fat under my skin made it difficult for the pad to stay still while I'm moving around, because fat doesn't stay still like muscle.

I often finished my workouts with incomplete data because the contact pad had flipped over at some point. I didn't even feel it happen. There are wider straps out there, but these things can prove difficult to put on, and even more difficult to keep in place. It certainly wasn't as fun as other people made it seem, and then I realized those other people probably weigh a lot less than I do. I'm not so sure I'd like it more than having a reliable smartwatch, anyway.

Apple has the best solution for me right now. The Apple Watch Series 4 is one of the only smartwatches on the market that uses electrocardiography for monitoring heart rate. Others have tried, and more are on the way, but the Apple Watch is the first mainstream consumer product that integrates it so cleanly.

It's a shame because I'm not currently an Apple user. I can't get the most out of the Apple Watch unless I buy an iPhone. I'll be able to use many of the features without connecting it to a bitten fruit device, especially if I were to buy the 3G model. But I have a hard time spending that much money on something I wouldn't be able to get full value from.

That's why I'm looking toward Withings and its take on the tech. It promises the same advantages, potentially at cheaper price points and fully compatible with far more smartphones. I'm keeping my finger on that pulse from now on, and if that sucks, I'll probably cave in and get the Apple Watch.

I want to approach fitness from a more data-oriented vantage point, but the tech doesn't make sense for me yet. I'll keep my finger on my own pulse to figure out how I'm doing in the meantime.

21 Comments
  • That sucks man. I'm black too. I've generally had a good experience with my Samsung watches as far as readings go. Every now and then it does go screwy though.
  • The laws o' physics be a harsh mistress! My skin is white to the point of being almost transparent, and those optical sensors (or, the one I've used) still seem pretty random, so I can imagine how bad they must be if your skin is very dark.
  • You're down to 32 stone?! Damn!
  • I feel your pain. I'm not too dark (cocoa complexion) and I have owned 3 watches. All of which could never give me a reading half the time no matter what I try.
  • I'm Black as well. I have found that the best HR reader is from My Galxy Note 9 sensor. It too uses light tech, but its through the finger tips where the skin color is of a much lighter complexion. I realize this is not practical when wanting a continuous monitor during workouts. My LG Watch Sport used to be terrible at HR tracking, likely for the same reasons you mentioned. Finally got a Galaxy Watch and for me, its been much better. I do have to wear the watch a little bit more tighter than I'm comfortable with to get an accurate reading though. My skin color is Brownish - like the color of a milk chocolate candy bar.
  • I understand what you are trying to get with the article, but unless you have a heart problem that requires constant monitoring, a heart rate monitor is worthless. The average person does not need to track their heart rate to lose weight or get in shape.
  • Black Heart-rates Matter!
  • The melanin gets in the way of heart rate monitors, but it also gets in the way of UV radiation and skin cancer!
    Does it help if the watch is strapped to the underside of the wrist, instead of the top? Signed: Your melanin-deprived brethren from Scotland.
  • Don't believe the hype! I'm black and I can tell you that Black people are very susceptible to UV rays and skin cancer - just not as much as non Blacks. It is true that people with higher melanin counts are more resistant to UV Rays, but not impervious.
  • I know, not impervious, but it is an advantage.
  • Let's burn everything down to the ground...not because we're black mind you, but because we're big....or...maybe not....
  • I'm white and can't get into the NBA...
  • That's because you suck...😁
  • Great article! Never thought about those issues. I use garmins ant+ technology for heart rate which is similar to polar but a different sensor strap. Not sure if there straps might fit you better. I am sure you are aware, that weight loss is straight forward -- calories ingested vs. calories expended. I have used heart rate monitoring devices in my athletic pursuits and I have found that the main benefit is to make sure one doesn't overdue in distance type events. As a rule of thumb so long as one can hold a conversation without panting/stuttering then one isn't over doing it. So my suggestion is exercise at a level that is still conversational and you'll be fine. All the best and I hope the tech folks can better accommodate folks of color.
  • That stinks, but playing devil's advocate for a moment. You eat healthier now - check. You exercise - check. Great. Do you really even need a heartrate monitor? They're popular items, but are they essential to live a healthier lifestyle?
  • Not at all! But I dont think that was the point of the article. Would be nice if we could use the cool gadgets like all of our lighter skin compadres!
  • Yea it sucks. I converted to Apple becuase of applewatch but switched back because I disliked the phone. The heart rate tracking is really much better than anything else on the market though still not as good for us darker individuals. To combat this what i have done is wear the face of the watch on the lighter side of my wrist. So basically I have it on my inner wrist and it works best for me there. Polar M600 is also really good at tracking here I currently have the galaxy watch and do the same but the rounder and larger face makes it harder for tracking. My wife has the galaxy watch active and it actually works surprisingly well. (Yes I married a black woman, alot of my critics didnt). But it also worked pretty good on my wrist as well though I have never done full workouts with it.
  • Still trying to figure out why on earth anyone needs a heartrate monitor. You should KNOW how hard your heart and everything else is working, it's part of listening to your body. It was the first thing my Dad taught me about exercise. I'm in the "too skinny" category for these things anyway, and I get rashes if I have anything tight on my skin for very long, so these will never be an option for me despite the fact that my lower melanin levels means the light-based methods would work, but I really really don't understand this obsession that some people seem to have for fitness monitoring. Don't people just... know?
  • No one NEEDS one. But it is quite convenient. I don't actually use mine while exercising. But I occasionally look at it and my history to make sure my heartbeat is in a good range. I'm actually on medication to keep mine from being elevated and it's helpful to my doctors to see my history rather than making judgements based on a single check during an office visit. It's not exactly the most practical thing to try and actively monitor my heart rate by counting my pulse or using some other device as often as my watch can do passively...
  • Im black with wrist tattoos. I had problems with the initial apple watch (which I lost), but I've since had the vivoactive 3, and the 3 music. Both of them have taken my pulse just fine. Most of the issues I had with the apple watch in pretty sure were due to my tattoos as it worked mostly fine on my non tattooed wrist. Also, obviously if you're looking for a smart watch, while the Garmin has notifications it's not near the smart watch the apple watch is
  • With all do respect, you should be thankful you haven't had a heart attack weighing 460lbs. A watch heart rate sensor is the least of your problems. I don't fault manufacturers for products being unable to work for extreme sized humans. I wish you luck. The only diet that works is a starvation diet.... Simply less calories taken in than burned off. The bigger problem Samsung has is how innacurate their step and distance tracking is on their watch. Step length is based only on a height algorithm. The Fitbit watches allow you to enter your stride length. Samsung measured distance is about 30% less than reality.