Whole-body vibration offers many of the same benefits as exercise

Vibration was as effective as treadmill exercise in improving bone and muscle health in mice.

Whole-body vibration is a low-intensity form of exercise in which a person sits, stands, or lies on a vibrating platform. The vibrations cause muscles to contract and relax multiple times a second. In new research, diabetic mice that went through vibration exercises saw the same muscle and bone benefits as those that exercised on a treadmill. While more research is needed to determine the effects on humans, the study suggests that whole-body vibration has the potential to combat some of the negative effects of diabetes and obesity. This could be particularly beneficial for people who can’t participate in traditional exercise due to physical limitations or other restrictions. We spoke with first author Meghan E. McGee-Lawrence to learn more about the finding and its implications.

ResearchGate: Why did you decide to compare the effects of whole-body vibration to exercise?

Meghan McGee-Lawrence: It’s a well-known fact that exercise is good for your body. Among other things, it can improve metabolism, body weight, and bone and muscle mass. However, exercise is inherently strenuous, and adherence to an exercise regimen can be difficult for many reasons, including scheduling issues and physical limitations. We wanted to know if we could obtain some of the same health benefits of exercise through a less strenuous mechanism.

RG: How did you test this?

McGee-Lawrence: We subjected healthy and diabetic mice to 20 minutes a day of whole-body vibration by placing their cages on top of a vibrating platform. The platform was carefully calibrated so that we knew the magnitude and the frequency of the stimulus being applied. Mice were vibrated for 20 minutes a day for 12 weeks. Another group of healthy and diabetic mice were exercised on a treadmill for 45 minutes per day for 12 weeks. A third group of healthy and diabetic mice received no intervention and served as our sedentary controls.

RG: What health benefits did the mice that underwent whole-body vibration experience?

McGee-Lawrence: Both whole body vibration and treadmill exercise improved the health of the diabetic animals. Their sensitivity to insulin improved, less fat was stored in their livers, their muscle fibers grew in diameter, their fat cells became smaller in size, and a marker of bone formation activity increased with either vibration or exercise. We were not able to completely rescue the diabetic mice—they were still heavier, with less bone and muscle than the healthy controls. But, we saw improvements in the diabetic mice treated with whole-body vibration or exercise as compared to the sedentary diabetic mice.

RG: How did the improvements from whole-body vibration compare to traditional exercise?

McGee-Lawrence: In most endpoints we examined, whole-body vibration and treadmill-based exercise had similar effects on improving health in the diabetic animals.

RG: Do you expect this will work in humans?

McGee-Lawrence: We hope so! There are clinical studies ongoing right now, looking at whether whole body vibration can have beneficial effects in humans in a lot of different scenarios. Past studies have suggested that there are a lot of details that need to be worked out. For example, whereas whole-body vibration leads to increased bone mass in some individuals, it hasn’t proven very effective at treating osteoporosis in post-menopausal women. And you can have too much of a good thing. We know that exposure to higher-level vibration in an occupational setting, for example vibration experienced by some types of construction workers, can have a harmful effect on bone. There are a lot of parameters—frequency, amplitude, time of loading—that will have to be optimized as whole body vibration is moved forward as a potential therapy for humans. But, animal studies like ours suggest that it should be looked into further.

RG: What could the implications for health and exercise recommendations be if whole-body vibration can be used as an effective therapy for humans?

McGee-Lawrence: This preliminary research suggests that there may be ways to obtain some of the beneficial effects of exercise in a less strenuous way. So, if this mechanism does translate to humans, it suggests that someone unable to participate in a traditional exercise program for some reason—for instance because of physical limitations or lack of time—may have another way to benefit from mechanical loading on their body.

RG: This research is evocative of old footage of people using vibrating exercise belts. Are the ideas related?

McGee-Lawrence: We get this question a lot! They’re pretty different. A closer, modern example to what we did would be the vibration plates that you sometimes see at gyms and fitness centers, which can apply whole body vibration in a controlled fashion. PowerPlate is one that is available commercially, but there are lots of options.

RG: Do you think results like yours mean exercise may one day be a thing of the past?  

McGee-Lawrence: We’re excited by the possibilities that whole body vibration may have to offer, but there is a lot of work left to do to determine whether its beneficial effects could be comparable to exercise in humans, and even if so, what type of a protocol would be most effective. So in the meantime, don’t give up on exercise, because the health benefits have been proven time and time again!

Featured image courtesy of Kris Krüg.