How Running Benefits Your Back
Your spine is a flexible stack of backbones (vertebrae) that literally take a mild pounding every day. As you move through the day – walking, climbing stairs, getting up from a chair, pushing a lawnmower, carrying something heavy, etc. – your spine bears and helps distribute the pressure. If each vertebra rested directly on the ones above and below, the bone-on-bone abrasion would soon wear the backbones out. Not only would you become hopelessly rigid, you would also be in a great deal of pain. Furthermore, the spinal cord that carries nerve messages to and from your brain to all parts of your body would become increasingly compressed. Cutting off nerves would paralyze your legs. In short, you would be in an ugly situation.
Spinal discs cushion the blow
Fortunately, there is a cushion between each vertebra. It is called a spinal disc, and in humans there are 24 in all. You can think of a disc as a capsule. The outside container is composed of several layers of a tough, flexible, cartilage-like substance, while inside is a nucleus (center) composed of a jelly-like substance. The discs have three purposes:
- Cushion the load on the spine by acting as shock absorbers
- Behave like joints to permit spinal mobility (bending and flexing)
- Act like ligaments to hold the vertebrae in position
As years go by, some activities put more wear and tear on discs than others, especially in the lower back (lumbar region). For example, people whose jobs involve heavy lifting with bending or twisting can actually do damage leading to what’s called a slipped disc or herniated disc. This means an edge of capsule is pinched and even sticks out between the vertebrae. Ouch! Also, discs can deteriorate simply with aging. The “jelly” in the nucleus of a disc can become less moist so the disc doesn’t absorb shock as well. Whether through movement/weight-related stress or age-related degeneration, further pain and complications like facet joint arthritis can occur. Is there anything that can be done to strengthen spinal discs in the lumbar region?
Running has a positive impact
Fortunately, many structures in the body respond positively when they are asked to work harder in a healthy way. For example, it was discovered in the 1990s that exercising with free weights puts “load” on bones that making them the build denser mass. They literally become sturdier. Still, it was long believed that the materials in spinal discs changed so slowly that over a course of a person’s life nothing can be done to resist wear and tear. Thus, the only back exercises for people with disc problems were aimed at developing more back muscle to help support good posture and relieve stress on the spine. After all, nothing could be done about the discs themselves.
Now, a recent studyi finally shows that the discs, like the bones, do respond favorably to the kind of “load” that long-term runners and joggers place on the spine with each step. A team of researchers from Victoria, Australia studied 79 men and women (average age 30) divided into three groups:
- 24 who participated in no sport or regular physical activity for the last 5 years
- 30 who ran 20-40 km per week for the last 5 years
- 25 people who ran 50+ km per week for the last 5 years
The research team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyze the composition of both the disc capsules and the nucleus “jelly.” What they found was exciting and encouraging. MRI scan revealed that the nucleus in the exercising groups was significantly greater than in the non-running group. Not only that, but there was much less depletion of the molecular moisture and proteins that normally keep discs functioning properly as people age.
A game changer for spinal discs
Lead author Daniel Belavy (Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Victoria) noted that the evidence overturns earlier beliefs about discs. More importantly, adding lifetime habits of jogging—or even fast walking—is an investment in preventing the widespread problem of disabling lower back pain from disc deterioration. Belavy remarked, “These findings give us hope that we may be able to prescribe physical activity, or advise the community on physical activity guidelines, to ‘strengthen’ the discs in the spine….This is something particularly important to consider in the younger teenage age bracket and also when people are in their 20s and 30s, with a view to reducing or preventing back problems through the lifespan.”ii
The knowledge that nature has equipped spinal discs, especially in the lower spine area, to become stronger, more resilient shock absorbers through vigorous walking, jogging and running is a game changer. The sooner in life you commit to regular exercise, the more control you have over future freedom from pain.
While this is truly important information, always discuss with your doctor the merits of exercise in your own case before starting a new workout or program.
NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you have health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.
iBelavy DL, Quittner MJ, Ridgers N, Ling Y et al. Running exercise strengthens the intervertebral disc. Sci Rep. 2017 Apr 19;7:45975. doi: 10.1038/srep45975.
iiRunning can strengthen the discs in the spine.” VMC Newsletter, May 3, 2017. https://www.myvmc.com/news/running-can-strengthen-discs-spine/
- Facet Pain