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A whole lotta shaking


Dream machine:
Liza Miller with her
Power Plate

Dream machine: Liza Miller with her Power Plate

Dream machine: Liza Miller with her Power Plate

Whole body vibration has been the most talked about development in fitness circles for years. The best-known technology, the Power Plate, has gained fans because of its famed ability to deliver the results of a 60-minute workout in a gym in just 10 minutes on the machine.

But while the toning aspects of whole body vibration (WBV) have been heavily highlighted, less has been written about the health benefits.

Some people dealing with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and cerebral palsy have found WBV to be a big help in dealing with their symptoms. Some research has been carried out on the specific health benefits and dozens of studies are still ongoing.

Linda Graham (51), who has suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS) for 20 years, was sceptical about trying out the Power Plate machine last November.

"I tend to be a bit cynical about trying things when you've heard a lot about them but I decided to give it a go," she says. "I had a session with a trainer and we started off gently, doing a lot of work on the feet and legs.

"When I got off the machine and put my shoes and socks back on, I felt a bit odd and just started grinning from ear to ear. The trainer asked why I was smiling and it took me a few seconds to realise it was because I could feel the ground under my feet.

"It was amazing as I've had numbness in my feet for about 10 years. It can make it difficult to move around when you're on uneven ground, like trying to walk along ramps. But even apart from the sensation partially coming back, it's a great emotional feeling to have your feet feel that contact with the ground."

Linda, who is a well-known artist based in Tralee, says she gets the sensation in her feet after every session of WBV at her local physiotherapist's office.

"I feel very stretched when I finish a session and the next day I feel a bit tired. It's a good type of tired because you've exercised as opposed to the fatigue that you get because of MS.

"When you have MS, it's terrible to see your muscles go to waste. It's a neurological condition, which means you have trouble with your balance and co-ordination but the muscles aren't actually affected by the disease. I can't walk very far and jogging and running are out of the question so using the machine is my only way really to get exercise."

When someone stands on a vibration plate, it transmits around 25 to 50 small vibrations per second to the body. The muscles react by involuntarily contracting, which helps to keep them toned.

However, it's not just muscles that benefit from the process -- studies have shown that WBV can help the nervous system, circulation and lymphatic drainage.

It's also been proven to help bone density. The reason why the technology was originally developed was to help reduce muscle and bone loss in cosmonauts (see panel) and several studies have shown that it can achieve that.

For example, a study by the State University of New York followed 70 postmenopausal women who were either assigned to using a WBV machine or else a placebo version. After a year, the women using the real machine experienced a two- to three-per cent advantage over the placebo group in preserving bone at the spine and hip.

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The technology can act as a preventative measure for bone density or can help people who suffer from lower than normal bone density levels.

Liza Miller, a mum-of-two and a personal trainer, found out last summer that she has osteopenia. The condition is the precursor to osteoporosis and is often taken as a warning indicator to build up bone density.

"I was very surprised when I found out during a health screening that I have osteopenia as I've always been very fit," says Liza (42). "But soon afterwards, my mother found out that she has osteoporosis so there is a family link."

Shortly after her diagnosis, Liza and her husband were visiting Harrods in London when they spotted Power Plate machines on display.

"We're both into fitness so we talked to the guy about the machines and what they could do. I mentioned that I needed to do bone building for my osteopenia and he filled me in on the benefits. I booked in for a lesson and then decided to buy a machine a couple of months ago."

Liza, who is originally from Canada and lives in Dublin, bought the machine for her personal training clients and also uses it herself.

"I haven't taken a bone density test yet as it's recommended that I get one every two years but I am hoping to see an improvement because I've been using the machine. It's a mild case of osteopenia. I'm glad that I found out early on that I have it so I can try to improve my bone density.

"I certainly feel the benefits on my muscles because I can work them more quickly using the machine than if I was just doing a gym workout."

Cathy Matthews (38), who was diagnosed with MS five years ago, likes to take a holistic approach to managing her condition. This includes seeing a homeopath and using a Power Plate machine.

Like Linda Graham, Cathy has problems with a lack of feeling in her feet.

"The numbness that I would feel in my legs diminishes after using the machine," she says. "I've also noticed a great improvement in my quality of sleep. I started using the machine in January and, within a week, the improvement in my sleep was phenomenal.

"The numbness in my legs, which feels like pins and needles, used to keep me awake at night and now it isn't so bad. I also get a tiredness from using the machine that's like the equivalent of that feeling you get after going for a run."

Although her MS is still in the early stages, it has restricted Cathy from carrying out some activities.

"I used to cycle a lot and walk a lot but I can't do those much now because my balance is bad."

Cathy, from Dublin, has three sons under the age of five and sometimes suffers from lower back pain.

"I feel more strength in my back since using the machine. I used to see an osteopath for my back about once a month and I've only been twice since last Christmas."

There are several different types of whole body vibration machines, including brands such as Power Plate and Fitvibe.

One of the benefits of exercising in one of the Power Plate studios is that trainers are on hand, something that is especially important for anyone who has a medical condition.

"I would hate to go to the gym and fall off the treadmill because of lack of balance," says Cathy Matthews. "When you have someone standing near you while you're working on the machine, you know that they're there to help you and will guide you on what to do."

Power Plate machines will be on display at the Access & Mobility Exhibition in the RDS next Friday and Saturday. Entry is free. For more information visit www.accessandmobility.ie. You can also visit www. powerplate.ie.

Where did it all start?

Whole body vibration owes its origins to the Soviet space programme in the 1970s. Scientists noticed that living in zero gravity had adverse effects on the health of the Russian cosmonauts. Their muscles and bones had nothing to push against and this led to loss of muscle mass and bone density during space flights.

Using existing data on WBV, the space scientists developed a training programme for the cosmonauts. It was only after the end of the Cold War that the West learnt of these training secrets and nowadays NASA uses the technology in its space-training programme.

The technology has also been used by Russian ballet dancers to help heal minor muscle injuries and is being used by athletes and football teams.

In 1999, a Dutch Olympic team trainer called Guus van der Meer took what he had learnt from working with athletes and came up with a WBV machine aimed at people of different fitness levels. The result was the Power Plate machine.

While it is well known for its toning abilities, it doesn't raise the heartbeat high enough to have a cardiovascular function.