A runner tying his running shoes while wearing an Apple Watch.
Wasin Kachapri/Shutterstock.com

The Apple Watch is a great fitness-tracking device because it can record both your GPS position and your heart rate. However, if for some reason you’re not getting any heart rate readings or it’s not being tracked consistently, here’s what to do.

How the Apple Watch Heart Rate Sensor Works

The Apple Watch uses green LEDs paired with photodiodes to track the blood flow through your wrist. Blood appears red because it reflects red light and absorbs green light (that’s physics for you!). So, by measuring how much green light is absorbed a few hundred times per second, your Apple Watch can track when your heart is beating. It can detect a heart rate range of between 30 and 210 beats per minute.

The Apple Watch also uses infrared LEDs for background heart rate tracking.

To force your Apple Watch to check your heart rate, put it on, and open the “Heart Rate” app. If you get a reading after a few moments, it means the problem is most likely tied to how you use or wear your Watch.

watch heart rate
My Watch detects my heart rate, so the sensor can’t be totally broken.

If you don’t get a reading, the heart rate sensor may be broken—or your Watch may need to be reset. Skip ahead to the section on resetting a Watch for instructions on how to do that.

Apple Watch heart rate error messages
It’s not fun to see these error messages after a run.

Make Sure Heart Rate Tracking Is On

To get background heart rate readings, Wrist Detection must be enabled. On your iPhone, open the Watch app, go to “Passcode,” and check to see if “Wrist Detection” is turned on.

wrist detection

If you’re relying on your Apple Watch to track your heart rate during workouts, you can’t use the Power Saving Mode. Open the Watch app on your iPhone, go to “Workout,” and make sure the Power Saving Mode is disabled.

power saving

Check the Band and Positioning

To consistently track your heart rate, your Apple Watch needs to be able to detect it. If it’s not correctly positioned on your wrist, it’ll struggle to get reliable readings.

Apple recommends that your Watch is “snug, but comfortable.” It should stay fixed in place while you exercise, but it shouldn’t cut off blood flow. You might need to tighten it a little bit for workouts, especially if you don’t like the feeling of a tight band around your wrist throughout the day.

While what band you use shouldn’t affect the heart rate reading, it can affect how comfortable your Watch is when you wear it tight enough to get a good heart rate reading. The Sports Band, Sports Loop, Nike Sports Band, and Nike Sports Loop are all designed to be comfortable when worn tightly during exercise. The Sports Loops, in particular, are easy to adjust as needed.

Other bands, like the Leather Loop or Steel Link Bracelet, just aren’t as nice when you’re sweating.

watch backwards
This worked for me and my hairy arms, at least while I run. Harry Guinness

Apple recommends you wear your Watch faceup on the top of your wrist. However, because of my hairy wrists, I actually got more consistent heart rate readings putting it on the underside of my wrists when I run. This shouldn’t be an issue for most people, but give it a shot if you’re struggling to get steady readings while running.

Factors That Can Affect Workout Heart Rate Tracking

A few factors can affect your Apple Watch’s ability to measure your heart rate.

Movement, especially dynamic movement, makes it harder for your Watch to measure your heart rate. It has an easier time tracking your heart rate during steady movements like walking or running, than during erratic workouts like boxing.

The LEDs and sensors are located on the bottom of the Watch. If dirt, grime, or sweat builds up, it can make them less effective. Give the bottom of your watch a wipe with a damp clean cloth.

Also, there are factors that make your heart rate harder to measure. The sensors detect surface blood flow and if blood flow is reduced to your wrist, it’s harder for the Watch to get a read. Cold weather is a big one here; theoretically, so are overhead gymnastic movements or any lifting that uses compression straps on your arms.

Reset Your Apple Watch

If after trying all the above suggestions, your Watch still fails to accurately detect your heart rate, the next step is to try resetting it.

watch reset

To reset a Watch, open the “Settings” app and go to General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings. Enter your passcode, and follow the onscreen prompts to erase the Watch completely.

Then, using the “Watch” app on your iPhone, you’ll need to set it up again.

Contact Apple

If a hard reset doesn’t fix your Apple Watch, it’s possible that the sensor is broken. Contact Apple as the company may repair or replace it for you, if it’s still under warranty.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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