Pulse oximeters have become popular as a personal purchase in the last few years. Though they became widespread in the 1980s, it is only recently they became more affordable. Today these devices typically retail for less than $30.
Essential reading: Top fitness trackers and health gadgets
So what exactly are they?
Pulse oximeters are simple non-invasive electronic devices that measure how well oxygen is sent to parts of the body furthest from the heart (such as arms and legs). Most can also calculate heart rate.
Obtaining a measurement
To obtain a measurement, a sensor is placed on a thin part of your body, usually a fingertip or an earlobe. Inside the probe is a light emitter that flings out two streams of light: one red and one infrared.
Oxygenated blood and deoxygenated blood absorb different amounts of these lights. These values are used to calculate the absorption of haemoglobin in the person’s blood stream, i.e. how much oxygen is in your blood. Okay, enough of the science lesson…
Oxygen saturation levels
Oxygen saturation levels fluctuate throughout the day. Healthy individuals typically register readings above 97%. Measurements should never fall below 95%, although levels above 92% are generally considered safe. Cold hands, weak pulse, hand movements, fingernail polish and acrylic nails are some of the most common factors that may affect a reading and cause inaccurate results.
Although measuring oxygen saturation during a workout may not be necessary for most, wearing a pulse oximeter can be useful in certain situations. Serious athletes may, for example, wear a pulse oximeter to monitor oxygen levels during strenuous workouts. They are also useful for mountain climbers and athletes whose oxygen levels may decrease at high altitudes.
Measuring oxygen saturation is more important for those with certain medical conditions or patients recovering from a recent illness or surgery. It can be used to check the health of a person with various conditions. This includes heart attack, heart failure, anaemia, lung cancer, asthma, pneumonia and Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). On a wrist wearable, it can also be used to warn of sleep apnea, a condition where breathing is interrupted during sleep.
This is our selection of some of the best pulse oximeters on the market today.
With the help of feedback collected from over 2,000 customers, the newly upgraded ZacUrate CMS 500DL Pro Series Fingertip Pulse Oximeter provides you with SpO2, pulse rate and pulse strength. Compared to its predecessor its quicker, less sensitive to movement, more accurate under indoor lighting and can read SpO2 up to 100% rather than 99%.
The gizmo’s finger chamber comes with a SMART, Self-Adjusting Spring System. This accommodates a wide range of finger sizes, from children to adult. All your readings are conveniently displayed on a large digital LED display.
The popular oximeter comes with 30 hours of battery life, which means you will not need to replace the two AAA batteries too often. A measurement takes only 10 seconds.
The main novelty of the Innovo Deluxe is that includes both a Perfusion Index (PI) and Plethysmograph in one device.
The Perfusion Index is a numerical representation of your pulse strength. What this means is that it eliminates second guessing whether the readings are reliable. If the PI value is less than 0.2%, this means that your hands are either too cold or improperly positioned..
The Plethysmograph shows a visual representation of your heartbeat. Each wave corresponds to a heartbeat and the amplitude to the amount of blood detected in your blood vessels. Consistent waveform represents that good blood flow was detected.
Of course, you also get a SpO2 and Pulse Rate reading. The technology mentioned above ensures accuracy of readings.
The newly upgraded SantaMedical Finger Pulse Oximeter is an affordable and accurate way to check pulse and blood oxygen. The self-adjusting finger clamp plus simple one-button design allows for easy operation. The small portable size makes it easy to handle and carry.
Other features include an easy to read bright digital LED display; 30+ hours of continuous monitoring on one set of batteries; integrated SpO2 probe and processing display module plus SpO2 and Pulse Rate and bar; low battery level indicator; and auto power off.
The oximeter comes with 2 AAA batteries and a hanging neck/wrist strap and case for use on the move. The device is intended for spot checks of pulse rates and blood oxygen saturation level at home, in sport and recreational use, such as mountain climbing, high-altitude activities and running.
Another popular choice, the Deluxe SM-110 comes with major improvements over the predecessor model. This includes a two way display (by default, the display faces the user – at the touch of button, it faces away from user).
This FDA approved monitor provides reliable oxygen saturation and heart rate readings. Just insert the 2 AAA batteries, put it on your finger in, push the on button and away you go. The SM-110 is for anyone who is interested in knowing their readings including mountain climbers, hikers, skiers, bikers, and others.
The gizmo is suitable for all ages and accommodates a wide range of finger sizes. Finally, you also get a nice little velcro close mesh case with a belt loop and neck cord.
This lightweight, portable device quickly measures your Blood’s SpO2 oxygen, pulse rate and pulse strength.
Simply place your finger inside the antimicrobial vinyl sensor and have these vital measurements instantly displayed on a a large digital red LED screen. Designed and Tested to exceed FDA and CE standards, the device features a battery-saving automatic power off function and a heart rate bar graph.
The oximeter comes with 2 AAA batteries, a nylon carrying case, a neck lanyard and a full one-year warranty. There is also a clear screen protector which can be removed before use.
iHealth, the maker of fitness trackers, smart scales and smart blood pressure monitors, also sells an oximeter.
The FDA approved device gives you gives you fast, accurate vital signs readings. You can track and view measurements instantly on the device LCD display and via the iHealth MyVitals app.
Simply charge your oximeter, download the iHealth app, and you’re ready to go. The iHealth Wireless Pulse Oximeter automatically detects your smartphone or tablet.
The app also keeps a history of your data and gives you the option to share your information with a family member, doctor or caregiver. Each reading is evaluated and charted for a clear picture of your current level of wellness, and results are graphed against previous readings to track trends at a glance.
It has been a long time coming but Fitbit has finally enabled the Pulse Ox functionality in Charge 3, Versa range and Ionic. Users are not able to see the raw values and the company has also stopped short of diagnosing any conditions such as sleep apnea. But this may change in the near future.
There is now a graph in the smartphone app called Estimated Oxygen Variation that appears in the morning amongst the sleep statistics. If the line is green your blood oxygen is fine, orange indicates there may be a problem. There are also two horizontal lines which show the healthy range.
Vivosmart 4 builds on the popular Vivosmart 3 fitness tracker. In additional to all the usual fitness tracking smarts, the fourth generation device comes with a blood oxygen sensor and it will keep tabs on your body’s energy reserves.
The oxygen saturation feature measures your oxygen levels at night, allowing you to better understand your sleep quality. This can potentially be used to identify sleep conditions such as apnea, although Garmin will not diagnose these. You can also check your oxygen levels on demand during the day.
The other novel feature is what Garmin calls Body Battery energy monitoring. This uses a combination of stress, heart rate variability (HRV), sleep and activity data to let you know when to push hard, when to rest.
The remaining features are fairly standard include the usual step, distance, calories, floors, heart rate and advanced sleep tracking. Like many other Garmin wearables Vivosmart 4 will also keep tabs on your stress, VO2 Max, reps and sets in the gym. No built-in GPS, though.
Other Garmin options include Vivoactive 4/4S, Venu and Vivomove range. They offer the exact same Pulse Ox functionality, but are more costly due to a wealth of additional fitness and health features.
Garmin has also churned out a number of sport watches with this feature.
The first to include the sensor was the Fenix 5X Plus. This is a feature packed device that tracks everything under the sun, comes with built-in music storage, Garmin Pay, GPS, pre-loaded topographical maps and much, much more.
The Pulse Oximeter does its thing at night, allowing you to better understand your sleep quality. This can potentially be used to identify sleep conditions such as apnea, although Garmin will stop short of diagnosing these.
The watch is a beast when it comes to the sports it can track and functionality and this is reflected in its price. Therefore you are unlikely to purchase it for its pulse oximeter alone.
Other Garmin watches with the sensor include the Forerunner 245/245 Music, Forerunner 945 and Fenix 6. It looks like the company will be slapping on the functionality to most of its new watches.
If a training program is to be successful, it needs to factor in recovery time. Biostrap is a wearable which focuses on this part of the equation. It helps you optimise sleep and recovery with clinical accuracy
This is one of only a handful of wearables that provides you with access to raw HRV data, in addition to SpO2, breathing rate and more. And it does it will clinical grade accuracy. You are able to see how individual variables effect your daily health and readiness for action.
In our review we found it does what it says on the tin. The wearable is probably not for everyone but those that exercise regularly and run/cycle every few days will extract more value.
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