Shake it, don't break it

November 19, 2007

In the movie Sleeper, Woody Allen's character emerges from a deep freeze in a future where it has been discovered that eating red meat and smoking cigarettes are good for you.

Cute joke. But what if it turned out that just standing for a few minutes a day could increase your bone mass? Or, even more outlandishly: What if vegging out in front of the TV in a recliner had the potential to make you less fat?

It sounds too good to be true, and maybe it is. But a study in which mice lost 27 percent of their fat and gained a like amount of bone - while doing nothing more than standing on a gently vibrating platform for 15 minutes a day - has lots of folks, well, buzzing about the implications for human health.

As The New York Times reported recently, Dr. Clinton Rubin and his colleagues at the State University of New York, Stony Brook observed bone growth in small animals placed on vibrating plates. Whether the effect can be duplicated in humans isn't known yet, although a federal trial involving 200 elderly people could provide answers.

Scientists have long understood that activity is good for bones; professional tennis players, for example, have about one-third more bone in their playing arms. Dr. Rubin's revelation is that bones seem to respond less to forceful impact than to high-frequency, low-magnitude vibrations. In other words, they like a bit of a buzz. But the apparent discovery that the vibrations also reduce fat - possibly by reprogramming precursor cells to become bone instead - is rather more startling and potentially more significant, and it has roused healthy skepticism among some scientists.

Clearly, more research is needed before declaring a comeback for vibrating couches and beds with Magic Fingers. But we wish Dr. Rubin and his colleagues success. Face it, the couch potatoes of the world get very little good news these days. Let them enjoy this moment of hope and possibility.

And as for all you smokers out there - sorry, you're still out of luck. So far.

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