CELEBRATE! profile: James Burns ‘10

It’s a new area of research – “whole body vibration” – that exercise sports scientists are exploring. Can standing on a machine that sends rapid vibrations through a body make an athlete run faster or jump higher? James Burns ’10 wanted to find out. Burns' work is the second in a series of E-net profiles that showcase Elon undergraduate research during CELEBRATE! 2010.

James Burns ’10

The exercise sports science major and Honors Fellow from Concord, N.C., has worked for two years in the sports lab on the second floor of the Koury Athletic Center, where he coordinated with faculty to test research volunteers on a Nitrofit Deluxe Vibration Platform.

Burns presented his findings in February at the Southeast American College of Sports Medicine and will share his work again today during the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum on campus.

In August, Burns begins a graduate program in exercise physiology at the University of Texas at Austin. He sat down this month with the Office of University Relations to explain his research in greater detail.

Q: Can you talk about, on the muscular level, what happens with vibrations in the body?
A: Theories right now are that they cause increases in blood flow and increases in muscle temperature. Both of those have been shown in other settings to increase muscle performance. Another theory is that neural activation in muscles may prime them to perform better after vibrations.

Q: What are the particulars of your research? You’re looking at a smaller slice of the broader field.
A: We had two groups, one being non-athletes, one being athletes. Our thinking was that athletes would respond better because of their past training history, from more high speed training, more intense training.

Q: What did you find?
A: Overall, whole body vibration didn’t lead to very significant improvement, but that we did see enhancements in contractile function of leg muscles in athletes. It’s not that we didn’t see performance enhancement. It’s just that we didn’t see very much.

Q: Why the difference?
A: We think it may have been because of the past training history. Athletes are typically able to perform, or produce, better high-speed contractions because of their training. So with the priming of the vibrations it may be that they elicit this ability to perform better. Non-athletes just weren’t able to produce that high-speed force necessary to get the response that athletes saw.

Q: What’s the importance of this research?
A: Currently there are a lot of different warm-up modalities. Some people will bike for a few minutes, and there are different running warm ups. Whole body vibrations could be potentially another warm-up for athletes if it does show that there are performance enhancements to be had from short durations. Say a basketball player jumps on the machine for two minutes, gets back off, goes into the game and is able to jump a bit higher. That could be significant.

Q: What do you see as the next phase in this research?
A: I think what we do from this point is really try to determine what protocols, and what vibrations – frequency, amplitude, and durations – elicit the best responses. Researchers look at a wide, wide range of protocols and I think it’s really important we pin down which ones work best.

Q: Can you talk about how you worked with faculty members Paul Miller and Eric Hall? How did they help you with your work?
A: When I was originally looking at different topics for my thesis, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do. I think it was Dr. Miller who originally suggested the topic of whole body vibration. He had seen some research on it and I immediately found that interesting. I applied for the summer undergraduate research program, where I started my thesis research. Dr. Hall and Dr. Miller were around all summer. They were absolutely available any time I needed them.

Q: What else should we know about body vibrations?
A: What we looked at was acute vibrations, meaning single sessions, and seeing if there’s a performance enhancement due to that. There’s a whole other area of research into whole body vibration that looks at effects over time. The two areas can be easily confused. We weren’t looking at training effects. We were looking at acute effects. That’s an important distinction.

Another thing I think is important to understand is that theses machines are showing up in health clubs all over the place and people don’t necessarily know the correct protocols to use to elicit the best responses. The links between whole body vibration and performance enhancement are somewhat tenuous. I caution people to take a grain of salt when they see these machines in health clubs.

Q: Athletes aside, this looks to be an area of research that has implications for older adults. Can you talk briefly about that?
A: In some of these studies, older populations see similar benefits as they would have had they been doing traditional fitness and weight training over that same time period. They see increases in muscle mass, muscle strength, balance and bone density. This has potentially wide applications to older adults, and potentially in rehab settings as well.