The Secrets of Whole Body Vibration

How Effective is Whole Body Vibration for Weight Loss?


From pills, to diets, to machines, quick weight-loss methods attract more people seeking easy solutions than the proven “eat less, move more” programs. However, for people with significant weight problems, who suffer from heart disease, diabetes and musculoskeletal problems related to obesity, there isn’t a simple solution to weight loss.

Over the last 40 years, researchers in Europe and the US have been developing technology that may improve muscle tone, flexibility and balance, all of which are essential to good health. Whole body vibration platform machines, such as the Power PlateTM or GForce Power Vibe, are being touted as the total body workout machines that use vibration to change the way you exercise.

The Science Behind the Whole Body Vibration Machine

Astronauts began to suffer muscle atrophy after living in zero gravity forces. Their muscles were weakened because they weren’t challenged by their mass, so they didn’t have much force. Russians researched ways to battle muscle atrophy and increase bone density and circulation while rehabilitating cosmonauts to Earth’s gravity. They found a solution in which they could cause the weakened muscles to contract without using weight.

The scientists used a platform that moved up and down only 2-4 mm at a specific rate per second. They discovered that when the cosmonaut stood on the machine, the vibration triggered the tonic vibration reflex (TVR) in the muscles, similar to the stretch reflex. Today, researchers believe that vibration has many effects, some of which are useful.

How Does Vibration Affect Muscles?

The vibration causes an involuntary reflexive contraction in the muscles, which is the body’s attempt to control the vibration-imposed muscle length change. It is also thought that WBV elicits a postural control strategy because vibration causes postural instability. The body responds by activating muscles to maintain balance. Because the oscillating causes vibrations throughout the body, it may also induce a muscle tuning response in an attempt to minimize the transmission of these vibrations throughout the body. Since no one has settled on one specific effect, additional study is necessary. Nevertheless, the oscillations in WBV consistently cause a significant increase in muscle activity, as measured by EMG, changes in temperature, and blood chemistry. However, Mayo Clinic physicians are not convinced that people can lose weight with whole body vibration. They advocate that it may be used as an adjunct to, rather than replacement for, regular exercise and healthy diet.

What is a Vibration Platform?

Whole body platform machines vibrate whatever body part you place on the platform. They use whole body vibration (WBV) to stimulate the nervous system as it relates to the muscles and cause reactions all the way down to the cellular level where hormones are made. Scientists have determined which types of vibration target the desired areas of the body to improve muscular function and rehabilitation.

The Benefits of Whole Body Vibration Are Inconclusive

There are a lot of alleged health benefits, based on published research. But not all the research conducted has been reproducible, double blinded, or consistent in the set-up procedures. Literature reviews find it difficult to make direct comparisons between studies due to these inconsistencies. Often experiments produced conflicting data, and at best they were questionable, especially in the claims for lowering blood pressure, causing weight loss and improving muscular strength in healthy individuals. The FDA has not approved of whole body vibration platforms to treat medical disorders.

Growth hormone (hGH) production was affected by WBV, but this was not particularly exciting news since it has already been proven that exercise tends to have this effect. In the WBV literature, the optimum levels of growth hormone necessary to cause muscle development and an increase in strength were not discussed, and it is not known how much human growth hormones whole body vibration induces. Therefore, readers beware of the growth hormone claims for whole body vibration.

On the same token, exercise is known to reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Whole body vibration advocates state that using this modality reduced cortisol levels significantly. But it was not clear whether there was a direct correlation to vibration therapy and cortisol levels or whether the fact that the subjects were engaged in exercise on the machine caused the change in hormone levels.

Whole body vibration has been used to treat neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy (CP), stroke, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis (MS) with the idea that stimulation of motor nerves improves spasticity, strength and balance. Konstantina Chanou, et al, in an extensive literature review published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, concluded that chronic whole body vibration training seems to only improve strength in neurological patients (CP, Parkinson’s, MS, stroke, spinal cord injury). They also found that balance and mobility improves only in patients with musculoskeletal (fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, low back pain, knee replacement) or metabolic (diabetes, osteoporosis, cystic fibrosis) conditions, but not from neurological conditions.

Whole body vibration was not more effective than other training methods, but it could be a safe, less fatiguing and less time-consuming type of exercise for patients with neurologic conditions compared to other more demanding interventions.

As for improving bone mineral density, the NIH compiled all the currently available data on whole body vibration, and no clear evidence exists that osteopenia or osteoporosis should be treated exclusively and successfully with whole body vibration therapy. At best, it can be used as an adjunct to other modalities and medications or supplements when safety precautions have been observed.

Can Anyone Undergo Whole Body Vibration?

Whole body vibration is not recommended for everyone. Vibration in the head, especially for the elderly with lens implants or pre-existing conditions such as vertigo and detached retinas, is not suggested. People who are pregnant, have cancer, severe diabetes, deep vein thrombosis or blood clots, recent surgery or fracture, internal fixation for fractures, and motion sickness are also not recommend to use vibration platforms.

The broad-reaching claims made by proponents of whole body vibration therapy should be received with skepticism. Vibration therapy does have certain positive effects on those with neurologic and metabolic disorders, but there is a lot of room for improvement in clinical trials. For those whose poor health puts them at risk for injury or whose health prevents them from engaging in resistance and cardiovascular training, whole body vibration may be an adjunct activity to improve balance and strength. However, it does not take the place of resistance or cardio exercise in healthy individuals. It does not make you younger, sleeker or fit.

Jodai Saremi

Jodai Saremi, DPM, BS , is a freelance writer, AFAA certified trainer, and fitness model. She has written for American Fitness, SPIN fitness, Your Health Connection magazines, and other online publications. Her articles have also been featured in textbooks. She enjoys an active lifestyle and lives in Ventura County, Calif. with her husband and two children.

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