Whole body vibration (WBV) exercise involves standing (or doing movements such as squats) on a vibrating platform. For the most part, it is a passive exercise that involves no running, lifting, or sweating. And all it supposedly takes is 10 to 15 minutes a day to get results.
One website says you will look slimmer, get stronger, feel more energetic, and move with more confidence—in “record time, with minimal effort.” Others claim WBV improves bone density, reduces cellulite and stress hormones, and elevates mood, among other benefits. It sounds like a dream come true, but does it actually deliver results?
The mechanism that might account for the purported benefits isn’t entirely clear, but the oscillating vibrations trigger an involuntary reflex in the body that causes muscles to rapidly contract. The part of your body closest to the platform is impacted more by the vibrations, so if you’re standing (as is typical), then your legs benefit most.
You can find the machines in some gyms, exercise studios, and rehab centers, or you can buy one for home use (costing from $250 to $1,000 and up).
Putting it to the test
Many studies have been done on WBV in animals and humans. Some have been promising, but results have been inconsistent and/or hard to compare for several reasons. For instance, researchers have often used different devices (which vibrate at different intensities and in different directions), different training regimens (with subjects standing versus moving on the platform, for example), and different populations (old or young, fit or unfit, healthy or ailing).
Most of the studies have also been small and short, and some have lacked a proper control group. No one knows what an optimal protocol is or what long-term effects—good or bad—WBV may have. Moreover, the high-quality professional machines used in research may not be comparable to less-expensive ones sold for home use, which vary widely in quality.
Increasingly, studies have been focusing on older people, who tend to have poor balance and other physical impairments that limit their ability to exercise. Here’s a look at some recent findings.
- Muscle fitness. In a small study in the European Journal of Sport Science in 2013, people (average age 81) who did both static (standing in place) and dynamic (moving) exercises on a WBV platform for nine weeks showed improvements in both upper- and lower-body strength. Another study, this year in Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, found that six months of dynamic WBV training (with squat exercises) increased muscle power in older people with osteoarthritis. Younger muscles seem to benefit too. In a study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport in 2013, active young women who did WBV training for three weeks had improvements in a variety of fitness measures, while a study in PLOS ONE this year found that fit young adults who trained on a vibrating platform for four weeks had greater muscle endurance than those who did the exercises on the floor.
- Balance. Most studies have shown that WBV can improve balance in frail elderly subjects, postmenopausal women, and people with medical conditions that can limit movement, as well as in young, healthy people. For example, twelve weeks of WBV training improved balance in people with diabetes in a 2013 study in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
- Bone health. Low-intensity vibration therapy is good for lab animals’ bones, but studies in people have had mixed results. One this year in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found no bone improvements in men and women (average age 75) who did squat exercises on a WBV machine three times a week for 11 weeks. Another, in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2012, found no benefit in postmenopausal women over a year. In contrast, some earlier research had positive results, with one study finding the most improvement in older people, particularly women and those with osteoporosis.
- Body fat. A pilot study this year in Clinical Interventions in Aging found that WBV with squats, done three times a week for eight weeks, had no effect on body composition in sedentary older women. Though some earlier studies have shown benefits, another paper concluded that even if vibration therapy increases metabolism and burns some calories, it doesn’t match the intensity of traditional aerobic exercise needed to reduce body fat.
A bad vibe?
Vibration is not always a good thing, especially for elderly and infirm people. Chronic and/or high-intensity occupational exposure has been implicated in back and joint pain, nerve damage, blurred vision, and other problems. Pain, leg numbness, and nausea have been reported in some WBV studies. Of concern, a study last year found that two of the three WBV devices analyzed exceeded the daily limit set by the International Standards Organization, delivering “vibrations not considered safe for even seconds, much less minutes, of daily exposure.”
Many people should avoid WBV training, including pregnant women and those with a retinal detachment, pacemaker, cochlear implant, or recent hip or knee replacement. Manufacturers of devices further warn against their use by people with severe osteoporosis, severe cardiovascular disease, cancer, and epilepsy, among others.
Bottom line: The benefits of WBV training are far from proven, and it is not a replacement for conventional workouts, including aerobics and strength training. Some studies indicate it may improve strength and balance, but so can training with simple (and less costly) equipment, such as weights and balance boards. There is no evidence WBV improves sports performance or reduces fractures, and its effect on falls is unclear. It is wishful thinking that just standing or moving gently on one of these devices will produce significant weight loss or get rid of cellulite.
Still, when done under medical supervision, WBV might be of value for some people who have lost muscle or bone due to aging or other conditions such as strokes, multiple sclerosis, and osteoporosis. It is sometimes used as part of rehab for injuries and other physical problems, especially in people who can’t do conventional exercise. If you are thinking of starting WBV training on your own, however, talk with your health care practitioner first, since it is contraindicated in many conditions.