Increasing the Accuracy of Wearable Heart Rate Monitors

Identify: Many people today look for ways to track their workouts to make sure that they are getting the best possible results whether it is for weight loss or training performance purposes. From high intensity interval training to slow jogging, heart rate monitors have proven to be popular in assisting users with how well they are performing. Furthermore, there are different types of heart heart monitors that are on the market today including chest straps and wearables that have proven to be successful. However, each different type of heart rate monitor has a slightly different method of measurement. So, lets take a peek into how these devices work.

Chest straps are one of the most popular and well known forms of a heart rate monitor that is used today. These straps use a wireless sensor to detect your pulse electronically and then send that data to a wristwatch-style receiver to display. Although these are deemed to be the most accurate, they are not the most comfortable to wear during a workout. Therefore, wearable wrist heart rate monitors have been developed which use an optical sensor built into the wrist unit’s watchband or case back to detect your pulse in a more comfortable way during your workout. The downside to these devices is that they are less accurate than a chest strap. Therefore, we can take a look into how to design an optical sensor that has the most accuracy possible for wearable HRM (heart rate monitor) devices.

Formulate: The main issues that have caused a lower accuracy and unclear signal in wearable HRMs have been the noise, weakness of the measured signal, amplitude of motion, and wide variance between different peoples’ wrists. To look into resolving these issues, it needs to be understood how these devices work. Optical HRM sensing is based on the principle of photoplethysmography (PPG). This allows the wristband to relate the pressure pulse from blood vessels as blood is passing through to each time a heart beats to get the heart rate. The way it does this is by using an LED to emit light into the body’s tissues and and use photodiodes to measure the amount of light that passes through them. The difficulty with this technology is that the measured signal is very small. In order to make a more accurate heart rate monitor, we want to be able to record the signal with the least amount of noise around it due to motion.

The most effective way for reducing the noise is simply the position of the wearable HRM in reference to the skin. The band needs to be worn with a snug fit and maintain an unchanged position throughout a workout. In the figure below, you can see the different interference levels depending on the gap between the skin. On the left, there is more interference shown by more blue lines and on the right there is less interference due to the proximity that the sensor is to the skin.

It is also important to understand that there are other factors that can cause interfere with a wearable HRM to decrease accuracy. For example, wrist curvature, wrist hair density and color, and skin color can all affect an optical signal’s reading. Skin color is a factor of great interest due to the fact that it greatly affects the signal and requires a change in LED brightness. Between the physical gap and skin tone, both factors are large determinants of accuracy for a wearable HRM.


In order to design an optical sensor. We will want to minimize the gap between the sensor and sin but also include a sensor that can accurately read a signal with various skin tones.

We can use this equation for photocurrent by breaking it into AC and DC components of the signal. Typically, there might also be ambient light present (AC + DC noise). However, “the DC component of optical noise is usually subtracted due to an ambient light measurement immediately prior or after the LED light on measurement, resulting in an effective signal of”:

Further Readings

Best Heart Rate Monitors and HRM Watches

Heart Rate Monitors: How to Choose and Use

How to design an optical heart rate sensor into a wearable devices wristband

LED – Based Sensors for Wearable Fitness Tracking Products

SFH 7050 – Photoplethysmography Sensor

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