Friday, June 30, 2017

How Is Running Good For Your Back?

Many of us runners have heard that running is bad for your knees (although I've put that beyond reasonable doubt here).

Many more of us have been told that running "overloads" our intervertebral discs (IVD) and causes jarring on our spine. And that in turn leads to low back pain.

 I've written about how my own back feels better after running after my accident.

Well, here's more proof that people who regularly run or walk briskly tend to have healthier discs in their spines than people who do not exercise.

This findings refute the myth that running overloads your spine. In fact it shows that running makes the spine sturdier.

The IVD's are located between the vertebrae, acting as cushions to dissipate shock. They contain a thick, sticky fluid that compresses and absorbs pressure during movement to keep your spine in good shape.

Aging, disease and/ or injury can cause the IVD's to degenerate and bulge causing back pain which sometimes can be debilitating.

Check out the evidence provided in the following study. 79 adult men and women were recruited for the study, of which two-thirds of the group were runners for at least five years. The "long distance" group ran more than 30 miles (48 km) a week while the others ran between 12-25 miles a week (19-40 km). The last group rarely exercised at all.

In order to get more information out of the study, the subjects wore accelerometers. Accelerometers measure movement in terms of acceleration forces, or how much power your body is generating when you move.

All the subjects' spines were scanned using MRI, measuring size and liquidity of each disc. In general, the runners' discs were larger and contained more fluid than those who didn't exercise!

Mileage did not matter. The IVD's of the runners who ran less than 30 miles per week were almost identical to the "long distance" group. The authors suggested that compared to moderate mileage, heavy training does not increase disc health nor does it contribute to deterioration.

Here's what's more surprising. The accelerometers showed that walking briskly at about four miles (or 6.4 km) per hour generated enough physical force to bring movement into the range associated with the healthiest IVD's.

Slower walks and standing in place were outside this range. (Now you know why your backs hurt when you stand and not move). Running faster than 5.5 miles (or 8.8 km) per hour were outside the range as well.

The "sweet spot" for IVD's health seem to be between fast walks and gentle jogs.

Things to note. This is a one-time snapshot of the subject's backs. This study cannot prove that running (or exercise) caused the subjects' IVD's to become healthier. Not yet anyway. It shows that people who ran had healthier IVD's.

It also does not tell us whether running (or exercise) can help treat existing disc problems.

My thoughts? The available evidence strongly indicates that IVD's like movement. If you've always been walking and running don't listen to the naysayers. If you have never ran before and want to, perhaps it will help if you start walking briskly first, this will strengthen your IVD's. Progress to run walks (run a little, walk a little) before running to gradually ease your back into it.


Belavy DL, Quittner MJ, Ridgers N et al (2017). Running Exercise Strengthens The Intervertebral Disc. Scientific Reports. Article No: 45975. DOI: 10.1038/sreo45975.

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