Noa is dancing enthusiast, a Zumba instructor, a mom and a PhD in Bioinformatics.
Worried That Running Will Hurt Your Back?
A new study examined the connection between regular exercise and spine health. The researchers concluded that people who exercise frequently by vigorously walking or running may have healthier discs in their spines than non-exercisers.
There exists a common view that strenuous workouts, such as long-distance running, may be overtaxing for our backs and might even cause back pains. The new findings challenge this assumption and suggest that running can make your back stronger.
What Are Spinal Discs?
The following video gives a concise presentation of your spine's anatomy. Spinal discs, also called intervertebral discs, are simply the shock-absorbing pads situated between the vertebrae in your spine. The vertebrae are the chain of bones that compose your spine.
Can Spinal Discs Be Strengthened by Exercise?
Experts used to believe that very little could be done to strengthen the spinal discs. It is well known that that exercising causes bones and muscles to become stronger and larger. But most experts supposed that spinal discs are different and that they remain impervious to this process. Moreover the common wisdom was that the discs might even be harmed by the jolting caused by strenuous exercise, such as running.
Several recent animal studies hinted that this view could be outdated. In a Swedish study mice were exercised by running on a treadmill for several weeks. The scientists examined their spines and observed substantial gains in the size of their spinal discs. They concluded that the spinal discs of mice could be responding to workouts and adapting to the strain of running.
The mice study inspired scientists to consider and design experiments that could examine the effects of running on spinal discs in people.
The New Study
Researchers from Deakin University in Australia hypothesized that individuals who exercise regularly by running will show better intervertebral discs (IVDs) quality than people who are physically active. The results of the study were published in April in Scientific Reports.
The research was conducted with 79 men and women, aged 25–35 years, that belonged to one of three groups: either non-exercisers, joggers (20–40 km per week running), or long-distance runners (50 + km per week running). To make sure that the reported activity levels were correct, the participants were asked to wear accelerometers for a week.
The scientists were not sure how long it may take for the IVDs to display a measurable adaptation to exercise; therefore they chose people with a history of maintaining their current physical activity level for at least 5 years.
The volunteers' spines were scanned using a special kind of M.R.I. that precisely measures the size and liquidity of each IVD. The data form the three groups was analyzed and compared.
The spinal discs of the long-distance runners and the joggers were larger and contained more fluid than the discs of the non-exercisers. It is known that greater size and increased amounts of internal fluid signify a healthier disc. It was therefore concluded that both runners and joggers displayed healthier spines than the people in the sedentary group.
Remarkably, there were only negligible differences observed between the long-distance runners and the joggers. Suggesting that more strenuous training did not result in additional improvements to the spine. Moreover, it is important to note that even people who run more than 50km per week still exhibit a healthy spine, supporting the claim that long distance running does not hurt your back.
In order to pinpoint the exact level of exercise required for spinal disc health, the researchers performed further analysis of the accelerometer data. It turned out that some of the joggers were actually moving in a pace that would classify them as brisk walkers. Indeed, some of the individuals with healthiest discs were not fast runners. It turns out that even walking briskly at a speed of four miles per hour is enough to obtain the healthier discs.
Finally, it is important to note that current study has a significant limitation: It did not prove that the exercise caused the runners' spinal discs to become healthier. It only showed that people who exercised also had improved discs.
How to keep a healthy spine and avoid back pain
Prevention is the key to maintain good health. Our spines may be at a greater risk than other body parts, and may even be the first to degenerate due to the abuse we inflict on our backs from habitual poor posture and prolonged sitting. An important aspect of this study is that it suggests that running (or jogging, or briskly walking) may be a valid tool for the prevention of back pains.
In the following video Dr Mandell is providing some guidelines for keeping a healthy spine.
Here are some extra tips for maintaining a healthy spine:
- Perform exercises that strengthen your abs and back muscles, in order to build a stronger core. Strong and flexible core muscles provide a better support for your spine and take pressure off your lower back.
- Stretching could increase flexibility and maintain your full range of motion. It helps to prevent back injuries as well as offer some relief when you are suffering from back pains. The following video is from the POPSUGAR Fitness channel, which I find to be a great resource for free workouts. It includes 6 exercises and stretches that are simple enough even for beginners. This short workout only takes 6 minutes to complete. I think that anybody can find 6 minutes to invest in prevention of back pain.
- Try to limit the total time that you spend sitting. The Spinal discs are loaded 3 times more while sitting, compared with standing. Therefore, the long periods we spend sitting can create or worsen a painful back condition. When I'm working at my computer I put a timer to remind me to get up every 30 minutes. I put on an energetic song and just dance away the stiffness from all that sitting.
- Work on improving your sitting posture. Many of us have a natural tendency to slouch and lean forward to look at the computer screen, placing added stress on our lumbar discs. Selecting the right office chair could help you to support the natural curves of your back.
- Get better quality sleep. When you're lying down to sleep, the structures in your spine that have been working hard all day get a well-deserved chance to relax and decompress. Consider investing in good quality mattress and pillows, ones that will support your spine in a comfortable way.
- Improve your diet. Healthy eating can play an important role in sustaining the health of your spine. Concentrate on natural foods, like fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meats and whole grains. Try to limit processed foods, making them a rare indulgence rather than the norm. Furthermore, consuming foods that are rich in calcium, like broccoli, yogurt and sardines, could help avert spinal problems like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Moreover, keeping a healthy weight through healthy diet and exercise helps decrease pressure on your spine and could minimize back pain.
- Check the quality of your shoes to make sure that they offer enough back support. Especially if you choose running for exercise, good shoes can make a real difference for your lower back. A good fit in the heel, for example, helps to avoid over pronation or supination, i.e. excessive rolling of the foot to the outside or inside.
For me, the results of the study are encouraging. I have a history of back pains, and was worried that doing strenuous cardio (my favorites are aerobic dancing and running) may be bad for my back. I find it reassuring to think that my workout efforts may be helping me to build a stronger spine.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Noa Keshet (author) from Israel on June 11, 2017:
Thank you for reading and commenting.
Tomi Smith on June 11, 2017:
Very informative article with great tips even for just living a healthy lifestyle! Thanks for the well thought out article.