If you’re a runner, then somewhere along the line you’ve probably had somebody tell you that it’s bad for your back. It’s an easy thing to believe – after all, every time you put your foot on the ground you’re piling on lots of stress in the form of pressure and vibration. But a new study out of Australia has contradicted that assertion – in fact, it concludes that running may actually make your spine stronger.
The study’s results come as a surprise, particularly for anybody who is familiar with the physiology of the spine. The back is made up of several components, including bone and cartilage, as well as the protein-based gels that we call discs, which are positioned between the vertebrae. The vertebrae are made to support the weight of our body and allow it to move in the way that it does, and the discs are there to provide cushioning in between. The discs are vulnerable to stress, and when they slip out of place or tear, they impinge on the nerve roots and cause pain. The idea that they need to be protected against the jarring caused by running seems like pure common sense, yet the research suggests that the exact opposite may be true.
The research was conducted in Australia. Scientists there examined the spines of dozens of men and women between the ages of 25 and 35. Some of the group were runners who regularly logged between 12 and 30 miles per week and had been actively participating in the sport for at least 5 years, while others did not run at all and were largely sedentary. Imaging studies done on the vertebrae and discs of each participant revealed that the runners universally had larger, healthier discs that were filled with more fluid than those of their inactive counterparts.
Of even greater interest was the fact that when the discs of the runners who logged from 12 to 30 miles per week were compared to a group that ran much longer distances – as much as 70 miles per week – there was almost no difference in the size or liquid content of their spinal discs. Rather than having the longer mileage and increased pounding work against the health of their spine, it caused no deterioration, wear or tear at all, and also didn’t make it any healthier than the more moderate distances that were run.
Lest you worry that this means that, in order to preserve the health of your back, you now need to strap on a pair of running shoes and hit the trails, the study also showed the same effect in those whose activity was slowed to a walk. The positive impact on the discs in the spine apparently begins to take effect once people are walking at a brisk 4-mile per hour pace on a regular basis. Though it’s always a good idea to check with your spine specialist before beginning an exercise regimen, this study suggests that going out for a walk, jog or run may actually do your back a world of good.