An intriguing study, published this week in the journal Endocrinology, compares the benefits of whole-body vibration with regular exercise. Could this innovative intervention help to stave off obesity and diabetes? Preliminary findings suggest that it could.

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Whole-body vibration could offer a new approach to treating obesity and diabetes.

It is difficult to ignore the obesity crisis currently sweeping across the United States and the rest of the West. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) write: “Obesity is common, serious, and costly.”

More than a third of U.S. adults are obese and, in some states, over 35 percent of adults fall into the obese category.

It is now well documented that obesity brings with it a range of negative health consequences, not least of which is diabetes.

One of the best ways to combat obesity is physical activity, but many people struggle to exercise regularly for a number of reasons. Anything that can either replace or add to the benefits of exercise could be hugely beneficial for a large proportion of the population.

A team of researchers from Augusta University in Georgia, led by Meghan E. McGee-Lawrence, set out to investigate a potential alternative to exercise – whole-body vibration (WBV).

WBV involves standing, sitting, or lying on a machine with a vibrating platform. As the machine vibrates, it transmits energy through the body, resulting in muscles contracting and relaxing many times per second.

First tested for its therapeutic benefits in the late 19th century, WBV has been studied for use in a range of situations. For instance, the European Space Agency is investigating it as a potential way to maintain muscle mass on long space flights.

Over recent years, WBV has also been assessed for use in a number of medical conditions. For example, a study in 2009 concluded that WBV might be beneficial for increasing muscle strength in the knees of females with osteoarthritis. Another study from the same year showed that WBV improved cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle strength in older adults. Similarly, an investigation in older adults found that WBV could help to improve balance.

The current project set out to understand whether WBV could mimic the benefits of regular exercise on muscle and bone. McGee-Lawrence and her team studied the effect in a mouse model.

Five-week-old male mice were used in the study: half were normal mice, and the rest were genetically unresponsive to leptin. Leptin is a hormone that helps to generate a sense of fullness; animals without a leptin response are predisposed to overeating and are therefore more likely to develop obesity and diabetes.

Both types of mice were split into three experimental groups:

  • WBV group – 20 minutes per day
  • treadmill exercise group – 45 minutes of walking daily
  • sedentary – no exercise

For the first week, the mice were allowed to get used to their equipment. Then, a 12-week exercise regimen began. They were weighed each week.

At the end of the trial, the genetically obese, diabetic mice showed similar benefits from both treadmill exercise and WBV. The obese mice gained less weight following WBV and exercise than the obese mice in the sedentary group, although they were still heavier than the normal mice.

Both exercise and WBV increased muscle mass and improved insulin sensitivity in the obese mice.

Our study is the first to show that whole-body vibration may be just as effective as exercise at combatting some of the negative consequences of obesity and diabetes. While WBV did not fully address the defects in bone mass of the obese mice in our study, it did increase global bone formation, suggesting longer-term treatments could hold promise for preventing bone loss as well.”

Meghan E. McGee-Lawrence, Ph.D.

Although WBV is not intended to entirely replace exercise, it could play an important role for individuals who either cannot exercise or cannot exercise enough. However, although the results are encouraging, they should be reinterpreted with caution; as McGee-Lawrence says, “because our study was conducted in mice, this idea needs to be rigorously tested in humans to see if the results would be applicable to people.”

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