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Whole Body Vibration Machines: Do They Really Work? – By Kelli Swick B.S.

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Remember the vibrating belt exerciser? This rather comical 1950’s contraption was placed around your thighs and buttocks and claimed to increase fat burning, decrease cellulite and promote weight loss. It was used in figure salons all across the United States and as long as used properly (i.e., not around the middle area where it could do damage to major organs), they appeared to be safe. Later studies found these machines to be useless for weight loss, but recent scientific studies have found that vibrations of a less vigorous type, such as in Whole Body Vibrations, may actually be effective, particularly when it comes to bone and muscle loss. The weight loss claims however are questionable.

The theory behind vibration and health dates back to ancient Greece, where body parts that were not working properly were mechanically stimulated in hopes that increased blood flow to these areas would help restore function. The Russian scientist, Vladimir Nazarov was the first to use Whole Body Vibration (WBV)) techniques in athletes, noticing improvement in their muscle strength and flexibility.  Applying these findings to the Russian Space Program, he found that with vibration training, astronauts could increase bone and muscle mass before venturing into space, allowing them to potentially stay above the stratosphere for a longer period of time. Weightlessness, or lack of gravity, causes extensive bone and muscle loss, with astronauts losing approximately 2% of their bone mass within a month in space, so NASA teamed up with Russian scientists to study the effects of weightlessness and WBV on astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS). Scientific studies have shown that what helps maintain bone and muscle health in space could potentially help us down here on earth.

What Causes Bone and Muscle Loss And Why Does WBV Seem To Help?

Our bodies contain slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. The fast-twitch fibers called Type llA contract very rapidly and are in constant motion, even though we may not be (i.e., standing still). These fibers assist in keeping us upright and work to maintain blood flow to our heart. As we age these fibers do not perform as well and are replaced by slow-twitch fibers. The consequence of this physiological change is balance instability and osteoporosis, a weakening and thinning of the bones. These two conditions together spell disaster, resulting in falls and fractures, especially of the hip and spine. Osteoporosis is becoming a major health problem, particularly for women, as our life expectancy increases, affecting more than 20% of women over the age of 60 and 70% of women over 80.

In 1996 the first WBV machine was patented. Its platform design, allowed the user to stand while receiving vibrations, ranging in frequency, amplitude and duration. The frequency (cycles per second) on these machines normally range from 3-50 Hz and the vibrations are of a vertical up and down movement and/or reciprocating vertical (lateral movement as well). The vibrations are barely noticeable to the user who is unaware of the continuous contraction of his/her muscles to stay balanced on the machine. The WBV machine is more popular in European fitness centers, but has been rapidly gaining popularity in the United States for gym and home use. Proponents claim it promotes weight loss, increases muscle strength and flexibility, increases bone density and improves balance and stability. Intensity can be increased by doing exercises such as push-ups, half or full-squats, etc. while on the platform. Training sessions are usually from 10-20 minutes per day at least three times a week. Numerous scientific studies have substantiated the claims of improvement in balance and in bone and muscle strength and clinical studies are ongoing in nursing homes, hospitals and universities around the world. Research these products carefully if considering purchasing one because WBV devices vary widely in quality and price, which can cost up to $10,000 for commercial models and hundreds of dollars for the home device.

Note that incorrect use of the WBV machine may cause ill effects (i.e., aggravation of low back pain), especially in the elderly and medical supervision under certain conditions may be warranted.

Kelli Swick B.S. is a Nutrition Consultant specializing in personalized weight loss through nutrition education and behavior modification. She can be reached at nutrika1@yahoo.com.


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