Running Toward a Healthy Back

The nearly 52,000 entrants in this year’s New York City Marathon on Sunday, November 5th, come from every state in the U.S. and over 150 countries. And that’s not counting the thousands who apply but don’t get one of the coveted spots in the race. They’ve likely heard it all: running is bad for you. And there’s not a body part that hasn’t been scrutinized. First, it was running is bad for the heart, then the knees, and for sure it was bad for the back.

Yet slowly but surely, over time studies have refuted every one of these claims, and more. Lately, it’s good news about running and the back. And it is particularly of interest me as a neurosurgeon who treats painful spinal disc problems.

We know that spinal discs, the gel-filled layers that separate and protect the vertebrae, can degenerate over time with aging. The potential is bulging or herniated discs that cause debilitating pain.

While we know that running is good for strengthening muscles and bones, researchers had not yet pondered how any such activity could positively impact spinal discs. In fact, they believed that running could potentially harm those discs. Until now. A recent study out of Australia, entitled “Running exercise strengthens the intervertebral disc,” which was published in Scientific Reports in April found that spinal discs of runners were larger and filled with more fluid than those of a control group of both women and men who didn’t exercise. This larger disc can be an indication of a healthier disc.

And it turns out you don’t have to be a marathoner to gain these back benefits. The researchers claim that also fast walking and gentle jogging—anything around 4.5 miles per hour—will produce the same effects.

Why I’m on Board

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is accepted as a normal fact of life. Aging means that your discs will deteriorate and subsequently cause problems. And while it is true that most of those I treat for this condition are middle-aged or older, due to an inherited condition DDD can also occur in those in their 20s. It stands to reason, therefore, that it is worth exploring anything that could alleviate what was formerly believed to be inevitable.

In addition to the potential positive impact on spinal discs, there are other reasons to celebrate running for a healthy back. Running helps keep body weight down, which lessens the stress on the back. It also helps to strengthen the core muscles, such as the glutes and abs. These are structures that support the back.

For those of us in neurosurgery, there is also the fascinating aspect of the impact on the brain of exercise such as running. That is, it releases endorphins, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. In addition to promoting general wellbeing, this positive association has the effect of mitigating stress, and back pain is exacerbated by that stress.

Rules to Live By

If you’re not quite a marathoner, but aspire to be; or, if you just want to “run for fun,” keep in mind some simple rules.

Build slowly—Build your program by increasing your amount of running no more than ten percent per week. This simple guideline will help your body adapt, and help prevent injury as well.

Take the talk test—To ensure your pace is reasonable, and to enjoy your exercise, jog or run at conversation pace. That is, you should be able to speak without being excessively winded.

In addition to running, jogging and walking, here are some other ways you can promote good back health.

Avoid prolonged sitting—This places an extra load on the spinal discs and can aggravate back pain if you are suffering from it. Try to get up every half hour, walk around and even stretch your back.

Do core exercises—As mentioned above, strong core muscles (those in your trunk) help support your back, and take the pressure off the spine. Stretch those muscles as well. This helps the flexibility, allowing you to maintain a full range of motion.

Watch your posture—When sitting, don’t slump, and when standing and walking, focus on an erect posture. To facilitate good habits, make sure that your chair and desk promote proper sitting posture. Test your standing posture against a wall, making sure your buttocks and shoulder blades are touching that wall.

The bottom line for running is reassuring: joining the millions of people who jog, run or even walk briskly can have a positive effect on your back, and your overall health and wellbeing.

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