Heart attack risks rise dramatically for women at menopause. Estrogen helps keep “good” HDL cholesterol high and “bad” LDL cholesterol low. It relaxes blood vessels, allowing oxygen-saturated blood to circulate to the muscular, hardworking walls of the heart and throughout the whole body. Estrogen also has antioxidant effects, which protect blood vessel walls against the harmful effect of free radicals – a major contributor to damage that leads to atherosclerosis (clogged blood vessels in the heart that lead to death of part of the heart muscle, also known as a heart attack). So when estrogen levels fall at menopause, replacing that hormone starting soon after menopause (bio-identical, non-oral versions only, and always with bio-identical progesterone!) will provide valuable preventive support. But there is much more to heart health in menopausal women. Some of it is un-thrillingly low-tech: eat right and exercise, get good sleep, and take supplements like coenzyme Q10, omega-3 oils, and vitamin D.
In April, Canadian researchers reported on 246 postal workers included in their study, all of whom met 7 times with a naturopathic physician. At those meetings, the ND gave these postal workers basic advice about what to eat, how to move their bodies, and which supplements (coenzyme Q10, omega-3 oils) might be beneficial. In other words, they helped these folks “shake up” their personal care and dietary habits. A group of control subjects just went about their business without ND guidance. The folks who met with the ND lowered their heart risk scores by about 28% in one year. Tests of heart health risks showed that much of that improvement came in the first 26 weeks!
After one year, the subjects who received guidance from the ND were 31% less likely than control subjects to have metabolic syndrome (a combination of high blood pressure, pre-diabetes or diabetes, high cholesterol and excess fat around the middle that affects 25% of American adults and drastically raises heart attack risk in both men and women).
It’s easy to forget the basics and to underestimate their potential impact when so many high-tech solutions are out there. One could think such solutions might allow us to eat whatever we want, lounge instead of sweat, and cross nutritional supplements off our lists of things to remember every day. No such luck, but I recently read about one interesting high-tech avenue toward reducing heart attack risk: something called whole body vibration therapy.
WBV involves standing on a vibrating platform to exercise the muscles. Simply standing on it has some effect, which is amplified by exercising – for example, while lifting weights – while on the platform. The Russians experimented with vibration exercise for elite athletes 50 years ago. Russian and American space exploration programs continue to study it as a potential way to prevent muscle and bone atrophy in astronauts in zero-gravity environments.
If you ever climb onto one of these devices, you’ll find that the vibrations feel a lot like the rumbling of the street when the el train is passing by or when a jackhammer is being used nearby. A person who stands or exercise on a vibrating platform burns calories but also gets an important stimulus in the muscle, skeletal and nervous systems; these effects improve strength, mobility and coordination.
It’s easier to see the health benefits of whole body vibration in people who are overweight and poor physical condition to start with. One study on whole body vibration training was just published by Florida State exercise scientists. They had obese postmenopausal women (average age, 56) do vibration exercise training a few times per week. Their fitness level and leg strength improved. They also lost central body fat and saw blood pressure readings fall – which means they were reversing metabolic risks.
What does the vibration element add to just doing the exercise training itself? Vibration training has an impact on the whole circulatory system, aiding blood flow and reducing arterial stiffness beyond what a simple workout would do. I’m not suggesting you seek out a vibration platform upon which to do your workouts (although they are available in an increasing number of gyms and physical therapy clinics) – they’re either pricey ($2000 and up) or not of adequate quality to be of benefit. If you are very heavy and want to jumpstart the benefits of starting a workout program, it might be worth your while.
However: let’s consider how this WBV thing might translate to a do-it-yourself paradigm. One thing that comes to mind is the idea that exercising on uneven terrain (for example: walking or running on sand or a nature trail instead of a perfectly flat sidewalk or treadmill) will have additive benefits, stimulating the body to continually adapt to new input from the environment. Nervous system factors like balance and coordination get a workout along with the muscles and cardiovascular system.
Try shaking up a workout regimen with something out of the ordinary: bouncing on a trampoline, perhaps, or trying something new like rock climbing. The key to effective exercise is to shake things up – and I don’t just mean shaking things up with a vibrating platform, but keeping the body guessing. New challenges and moving in new ways is what spurs continual adaptation. And if it isn’t adapting, it’s atrophying.
Naturopathic medicine for the prevention of cardiovascular disease: a randomized clinical trial. Seely D, Szczurko O, Cooley K, Fritz H, Aberdour S, Herrington C, Herman P, Rouchotas P, Lescheid D,Bradley R, Gignac T, Bernhardt B, Zhou Q, Guyatt G.CMAJ. 2013 May 13. [Epub ahead of print]
Whole-body vibration exercise training reduces arterial stiffness in postmenopausal women with prehypertension and hypertension Figueroa, Arturo; Kalfon, Roy; Madzima, Takudzwa A.; Wong, Alexei Menopause., POST EDITOR CORRECTIONS, 24 May 2013 doi: 10.1097/GME.0b013e318294528c
Ten-week whole-body vibration training improves body composition and muscle strength in obese women. Milanese C, Piscitelli F, Zenti MG, Moghetti P, Sandri M, Zancanaro C. Int J Med Sci. 2013;10(3):307-11. doi: 10.7150/ijms.5161. Epub 2013 Feb 2.
Prediction of cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality with arterial stiffness: A systematic review and meta-analysis.Vlachopoulos C, Aznaouridis K, Stefanadis C, et al. J Am Coll Cardiol 2010; 55:1318-1327.
Vibration training: benefits and risks. Mester J, Kleinöder H, Yue Z. J Biomech. 2006;39(6):1056-65.