Standing still—or better yet, lying down—in a gym or at home on a machine that does all the work for you seems like a cheater’s vision of exercise. But for many people who are obese and/or have a lack of stamina or other issues that make it difficult to exercise, it may be a realistic vision.
Good news: These folks may be able to get many of the benefits of exercise—including reduced blood sugar and increased insulin sensitivity—in a different way.
It’s called whole-body vibration.
Background: Whole-body vibration (WBV)—standing, sitting or lying on a machine with a vibrating platform—causes muscles to contract and relax repetitively, placing a “biomechanical load” on the body that is similar, in some ways, to what exercise does. Although it’s been around for decades, new technology has revived interest in it. But does WBV provide the same protective effects on the body—including preventing diabetes—as traditional physical exercise? Researchers from the Medical College of Georgia decided to find out.
Study: This was an animal study, but it sheds light on basic physiology. Researchers used obese mice with diabetes. Half of the mice exercised for 45 minutes a day on a treadmill. The other half were given whole-body vibration for 20 minutes a day.
Results: After 12 weeks, the two groups showed similar improvements. Muscle fiber increased 24% in the vibration group compared to 29% in the treadmill exercisers. The size of fat cells went down by 15% (vibration) versus 21% (treadmill). Both groups had similar improvements in insulin sensitivity, which reduces the severity of diabetes, and similar reductions in fat deposits in their livers—a risk factor for both fatty liver disease and for diabetes. Overall, treadmill exercise was more effective than whole-body vibration at improving blood sugar control and reducing weight—but only slightly.
Surprising finding: The whole-body vibration mice experienced a mild bone benefit, too. Just like the treadmill exercisers, they had small increases in blood levels of osteocalcin, a marker for bone formation.
Bottom line: Whole-body vibration does indeed provide some of the same physical and metabolic benefits as more strenuous physical exercise. To be sure, this study doesn’t prove that standing on a vibrating platform is as good at preventing or controlling diabetes as running, swimming or riding a bike. But the findings are encouraging—and other research on people has found that whole body vibration can improve muscle strength and coordination while improving the flexibility of blood vessels and reducing high blood pressure. You can find whole-body vibration machines (often referred to as vibration trainers) at some gyms. They are also available in stores that sell fitness equipment, as well as on online. If you know someone who just can’t or just won’t exercise, these “good vibes” may be a good alternative.