What Is Body Vibration Therapy? (And Why NASA Used It to Reduce Bone Loss in Astronauts)

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The first therapeutic use of vibration therapy was developed by Dr. Gustav Zander, a Russian physician, in 1867 who used pulleys and weights to create vibration. Later, Dr. John Kellogg developed a vibrating chair, in 1895, which he used to improve circulation and reduce constipation in his patients.

Russian doctors discovered that cosmonauts in space suffered from bone loss and fractures at a younger age than that is normal and started using vibration therapy as a means to strengthen the bones and muscles of the cosmonauts. This therapy was later adopted by NASA to help prevent bone loss in their astronauts during space travel.

Astronauts and Bone Loss

Kidney stones, bone loss and muscle atrophy are common problems encountered by astronauts during prolonged periods of stay in space. To prevent these problems, usually, astronauts exercise for around 2.5 hours a day, around 6 times a week (i.e. 15 hours a week) using devices that depend on elastic, harnesses and springs to provide resistance and imitate body weight when in orbit. While the proper amount and type of exercise is the key to maintaining muscle in space; however, problems like bone or muscle loss cannot be completely eliminated by physical exercise alone.

The bone structure plays a very important role in the body. Not only does it provide support to the body, but it also stores calcium and by the process of remodeling via bone resorption and formation, it maintains fracture resistance. In space, the microgravity environment causes increased resorption of the bone without any change or decreased rate of bone formation due to reduced loading stimuli, which leads to loss of bone mass at a rate of 10x compared to osteoporosis.

The proximal femoral bone loss is around 1.5% of its mass a month or around 10% during a 6-month stay in space and after returning to earth, the recovery of this loss can take around 3 to 4 years. The calcium balance, which is around zero on earth reduces to around -250 mg per day in space, which increases the risk of kidney stones.

So, when freed from gravity, the bones and muscles of astronauts can weaken at an alarming rate. Muscle atrophy happens rapidly, while the bone mass gets depleted due to prolonged exposure to weightlessness. To reduce or prevent this, exercise is required, which can be quite a challenge in space.

However, scientists in NASA discovered that bone loss can be prevented in astronauts by using vibration therapy for 10-20 minutes every day. Vibration therapy can also be used to treat people suffering from bone loss or osteoporosis on earth. The vibrations used in vibration therapy are very slight and the plate vibrates at around 90Hz i.e. 1 Hz = 1 cycle/second and each oscillation imparts an acceleration that is equivalent to 1/3rd of the earth’s gravity. If you touch the plate, you will be able to feel a slight vibration; however, you may not be able to see any vibration at all.

Understanding Body Vibration Therapy

So, how does vibration therapy work? There are essentially 2 types of vibration therapy–localized and whole body. In the case of whole body vibration therapy, you will need to lay, stand or sit on a machine that has a vibrating platform.

You can either stand using a passive stance i.e. sitting, standing, etc. on the platform or you can adopt an active stance, i.e. doing squats, bicep curls, pushups, etc. using resistance straps, harnesses, etc. in order to target different problem areas. In the case of localized vibration therapy, usually, a handheld device is placed on certain parts of your body i.e. on your thigh or calf muscles.

The vibrations in the vibration machine are produced by motors that are under the platform, which are transmitted to the user who is on the platform. The amplitude, frequency and direction of the movement of the vibration platform determine the intensity, as well as the results you achieve. During body vibration therapy, the muscles in the body are stimulated via the destabilizing effect on the user when you step onto the vibrating platform.

In order to regain the lost balance, the muscles in the body tense or flex and depending on your stance on the vibration platform, the muscles around the particular joints will be stimulated and stretched. This is picked up by the sensory receptors in the muscles that send signals to the CNS (central nervous system), as well as the brain, and from the brain, the signals are sent to the spinal cord, which makes you instinctively contract the muscles in the entire body in order to balance yourself.

Because of the involuntary muscle contractions and the higher frequency at which these contractions occur on the vibration platform, a greater number of muscle fibers are activated compared to when you’re doing conventional exercise, thereby increasing the muscle activity and reducing the time needed to achieve the desired results.

Some kinds of vibrations encourage the body to produce osteoblasts, i.e. the cells that produce bone. The intensity, as well as the direction of the vibrations, can determine the results of the vibration therapy. While some vibration machines vibrate vertically, others move back and front, up and down and sideways. It is believed that the up/down vibrations are most effective in producing muscle contractions.

Health Benefits of Body Vibration Therapy

Health and fitness enthusiasts claim that localized and whole body vibration therapy has a whole range of health benefits. For example:

  • Increasing bone density
  • Increasing muscle mass
  • Improving circulation
  • Reducing back pain
  • Reducing joint pain
  • Boosting metabolism
  • Alleviating stress

Improving Muscle Strength

The main reason why vibration therapy was used for Russian cosmonauts was to improve muscle strength. A 2003 study revealed that when untrained women were asked to perform knee exercises on a vibrating platform, the women who exercised with vibration between 2.28 to 5.09 g showed significant improvement in knee strength compared to the placebo group who did not display any strength gains.

Another study revealed that 48 untrained women were asked to perform both static, as well as dynamic exercises on a vibrating platform for around 24 weeks, while another group performed resistance training for around 40 minutes without vibration. At the end of 24 weeks, the women performing exercises on the vibration platform showed significant improvement in knee strength as compared to the women who performed strength training without vibration.

A 2001 study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine revealed that when resistance training is done in a slow and controlled manner, it can help in significant strength gains in the back and knees when it is combined with body vibration therapy.

Boosts Weight Loss and Reduces Abdominal Fat

A study by the European Association for the Study of Obesity showed that when a healthy diet is combined with short bursts of workouts on a vibration platform, it results in the best weight loss results in overweight and obese women. The group of women who were assigned a 6-month diet plan along with a body vibration workout plan showed the best results in terms of weight loss and loss of abdominal fat.

There are many studies with similar results that prove that when vibration therapy is combined with a healthy diet, it can help people who are trying to lose weight and also reduce the fat stored around the abdomen. Abdominal fat is generally linked to heart disease, diabetes and other health conditions and reduction of fat storage from this area can be extremely beneficial.

Helps to Reduce the Negative Impact of Stress

Stress is a part and parcel of our modern life and while eliminating it completely is almost impossible, you can find ways to reduce the negative impact of stress on our health. When the body is in a state of stress, the hormone cortisol is released, which can increase the risk of headaches, depression, anxiety and weight gain. Research shows that regular use of vibration therapy can help to reduce stress.

A study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology revealed that whole body vibration therapy reduced the cortisol levels in men effectively while increasing the human growth hormone, as well as testosterone levels. Another study by the University of Cologne, Germany discovered that vibration therapy helped to reduce glucose and cortisol levels.

These studies essentially reveal that body vibration therapy has greater health benefits than just stimulating strength in muscles. It can help to alter the concentration and release of hormones that impact all the systems in the body without any negative effects, which makes body vibration one of the best methods to overcome stress.

Helps to Increase Bone Density

As we have discussed earlier, it is seen that vibration therapy is used widely to prevent bone and muscle loss in space. But, what about the bone loss on earth? As you age, your bones become quite fragile. And, in menopausal women and elders, conditions such as osteoporosis and other issues increase the risk of broken bones and it is quite common for them to take calcium and other supplements to strengthen their bones. However, it is seen that body vibration therapy can offer an added layer of protection.

Studies have proved that sitting or standing on a vibrating platform can help to increase bone mass effectively and this is seen as an excellent way to strengthen bones of those who are not able to perform high-intensity exercises. Vibration therapy is helpful for both menopausal women, as well as elders, who are looking to prevent bone loss because of hormonal changes. Vibration therapy can also be used by people of all ages who cannot exercise because of medical conditions.

A study with 48 young women who suffered from at least 1 bone fracture and low bone mass were divided into 2 groups – an active and a control group. The active group was exposed to 10 minutes of body vibration therapy every day. The results revealed that the women who received body vibration therapy showed a significant increase in bone density in their lower and upper parts of the body.

In another study, it was found that the bone density in the hips of postmenopausal women improved significantly after 6 months of body vibration therapy. Continued vibration therapy is being recommended for younger women who want to reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis later in life. And, it is possible that these benefits will also extend to older people who are looking to improve their bone density or slow down the bone mass loss.

Helps to Improve Balance and Coordination

As you age, the risk of falling is greater and because your bones are weaker, they are more likely to break, which is why medical professionals recommend daily exercise for elders to improve their balance, flexibility and coordination. And, studies have revealed that body vibration therapy helps to improve all these.

A study in 2005 published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation revealed that body vibration therapy helped to reduce the risk of accidental falls for elderly nursing home residents. People using whole body vibration therapy showed improvements in motor capacity and body balance and overall well being.

Greater Results in Less Time

Research reveals that standing, lying or sitting on a vibration platform on a daily basis can offer results of exercise. A 2017 study in the Journal of Endocrinology tested body vibration therapy on mice with diabetes and obesity. The mice were divided into 3 groups. One group was made to stand for 20 minutes on a vibration plate every day, while the 2nd group was made to walk for 45 minutes on an inclined treadmill every day and the 3rd group did not have any exercise.

The results revealed that the diabetic and obese mice achieved the same improvements in their metabolism whether they stood for 20 minutes on the vibrating plate or walked on the treadmill for 45 minutes. The mice in Group 1 and 2 gained less weight and also showed improved insulin sensitivity and muscle mass gain when compared to the sedentary mice in Group 3.

So how does this translate to humans? If you’re trying to improve your health and quality of life, you can include vibration therapy:

  • If you are not able to exercise physically, then sitting or standing on a vibration therapy machine every day can deliver some metabolic benefits.
  • If you do not have the time for a long workout, then you could consider a shorter workout on a vibration plate.
  • You could perform some or all of your workout on a vibration platform for enhanced benefits.

Helps in Parkinson’s Disease

A study suggests that whole body vibration therapy can have short-term benefits for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. For instance, body vibration therapy can help to reduce muscle rigidity and tremors. However, there is more research required to assess the efficacy of vibration therapy for long-term effects.

Finally, in conclusion, we can see that body vibration therapy has many benefits for people of varying ages and in different states of physical fitness. It has been used successfully in treating many health conditions and has also been proven to reduce bone loss and increase muscle mass and bone density effectively. So, it may be worth your while to find a fitness center offering body vibration therapy or invest in a personal whole body vibration machine for your home.

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