Bodywork

Q:

What's Up With Those Vibration Machines at the Gym?

My gym has one of those vibration machines that’s supposed to help you lose weight by standing on it. Do these things really work—and are they safe?

    Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

A:These contraptions, known as Whole Body Vibration (WBV) machines, have been appearing in fitness clubs over the past five years or so. Theoretically, performing exercises like squats, stretches, or pushups on a vibrating platform makes your muscles contract and work overtime, manufacturers claim, shortening your workout time and increasing results.

Power Plate, the biggest player in the WBV market, cites research on the benefits of vibration on bone density, weight loss, circulation, and even cellulite and vertical jumping height. A 2010 study published in the journal Obesity Facts, for example, found that people who trained on Power Plate for six months were able to lose twice the abdominal fat than those who did the same exercises without vibration. After another six months, the Power Plate group was also better able to keep the weight off.

But other researchers are concerned about its safety. Clinton Rubin, a professor of biomedical engineering at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, published a paper last year on the positive effects of low-magnitude vibration on immunity and obesity prevention in mice. The vibrations that he studied, however, were at least 50 percent less than the ones put out by Power Plate—which makes a big difference, he cautions. Repeated exposure to vibration can cause more harm than good.

“Vibration is a really nasty pathogen, and is considered a major cause of low back pain in truck drivers, blurred vision, hearing loss, joint pain—even sub-concussive insult to the brain,” Rubin says. According to the International Organization for Standard’s advisory on human exposure to vibration, he adds, “the low setting of Power Plate is not considered safe for even one minute per day.”

As for Power Plate’s supposed benefits, Rubin says that they should be weighed against damage most likely caused to the joints: “Imagine jumping off your desk 30 times a second for 10 minutes and think what it does to your cartilage!”

Rubin is working with a company to manufacture his own low-magnitude vibration platform, which he hopes will some day be approved as a treatment for a variety of ailments, including obesity and diabetes. Power Plate, meanwhile, tackles some of its critics (including Rubin) in a “myths and truths” page on its website.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Research shows a moderate weight-loss benefit, but there are long-term safety concerns to think about. Talk to your doctor if you’re considering adding this device to your fitness regimen—or take the better-safe-than-sorry route and earn that six pack the old-fashioned way.

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