For years, companies have been hawking vibration as a form of exercise—from those fat-jiggling waist belts in the ’80s to the vibrating platforms found in many gyms today. Now, a new study in mice suggests there might be some truth to the idea that a vibrating machine may be able to deliver some of the same benefits as actual physical activity.
The new research, published in the journal Endocrinology, found that mice with diabetes and obesity had similar improvements in muscle mass and insulin sensitivity over 12 weeks when they were assigned to either 45 minutes of daily treadmill walking or 20 minutes of daily whole-body vibration. Both groups gained less weight and improved more in overall health than sedentary mice that received neither intervention.
Whole-body vibration consists of a person (or, in the study's case, a mouse) sitting, standing or lying on a platform. The platform’s vibrations send tiny shockwaves through the body, causing muscles to contract and relax multiple times per second.
The obese mice in the study also had low bone density, a common side effect of excess weight in both animals and humans. While treadmill exercise did improve this measure over 12 weeks, the vibration technique did not. Both interventions did, however, increase levels of a protein involved in bone formation, suggesting that longer-term treatments could potentially help prevent future bone loss.
Vibration is not a cure-all for the problems associated with sedentary life, say the study authors, and results seen in mice don’t necessarily translate to humans. Before vibration-based treatments can be widely recommended, these results would need to be replicated in clinical trials. (A 2009 study found that vibration platforms helped obese people lose body fat, but other metabolic benefits have been less studied in people.)
The authors also point out that the study was designed to test the benefits of vibration on obese, unhealthy mice for whom regular exercise is difficult. Young, healthy mice, who were also included in the study, did not reap the same benefits from the whole-body vibration.
Lead author Meghan McGee-Lawrence, assistant professor of cellular biology and anatomy at Augusta University, says that vibration therapy might be an effective way to help people who are extremely overweight or have other limitations that keep them from regular physical activity.
“If you are able to exercise, we’d still recommend exercise as a first choice option,” says McGee-Lawrence. But for people who find it difficult to work out in a traditional way, “our study suggests it may be possible to obtain some of the same beneficial effects of exercise in a different, less strenuous way.”
For vibration to have these benefits, though, a lot of things have to be just right. “The frequency and magnitude of the stimulus, and how long it’s applied, need to be optimized to achieve the outcome you desire,” says McGee-Lawrence. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, she adds. Exposure to higher-level vibration in occupational settings, for example, can actually have a harmful effect on bone.
Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, says that benefits of whole-body vibration are “100% legit.” Vibration platforms can be used for exercise warm-ups, cool-downs or for certain moves like squats, planks and Pilates poses.
“When you’re on one of these platforms, the oscillations add gravity and force, which are really important for building strength,” he says. For people who are too overweight or too out of shape to exercise safely and comfortably, he adds, vibration training can “introduce exercise to the body in a relatively low-stress environment.”
“Standing on a vibrating platform for 5, 10, 15 minutes can actually make cells stronger, maybe help them lose a little weight, and get them better prepared to eventually start exercising,” he says.
The American Council on Exercise warns that whole-body vibration machines may affect pacemakers and other electronic implants, and that pregnant women and anyone with a history of seizures, tumors or thrombosis should not use them.
For generally healthy people, McCall stresses that they should be used as a supplement to moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, not a replacement. “There’s no additional demand for oxygen, so the lungs and heart don’t have to work any harder,” he points out. “It’s not going to give you the important cardiovascular benefits that real exercise will.”