As someone who has been dealing with back problems for some time, I became interested in studying the recent research on spine problems and how they relate to exercise. I ran across an article with the surprising title “Running Exercise Strengthens the Intervertebral Disc” in Scientific Reports. Like most people, I assumed running was tough on the spine, especially the discs which get pounded with each landing. Now it looks like conventional wisdom was wrong.
The basic notion is that most body tissues respond to workloads by getting stronger and healthier. If we exercise a muscle, it gets stronger. If we place loads on bones, they, too, get stronger. Of course, it has to be the right kind and amount of load. Overload a muscle, and it will tear. Overload a bone, and it will fracture. Can the same be true for the discs in our back?
Animal studies have shown that exercise can indeed strengthen the intervertebral discs (IVD). No study has confirmed this in humans until recently. This study included both men and women between 25 and 35 years of age. Individuals had to be exercising at least five years. Detailed MRIs were used to study the discs of fast walkers and slow runners and compare them to individuals with healthy spines who did not exercise.
It was determined that fast walking and slow running were beneficial to IVD. The study defined slow running as just 2 meters per second (about a 13-minute mile). Both types of exercise improved thickness, hydration and proteoglycan content (a protein present in connective tissue). Not beneficial was prolonged standing, slow walking, heavy lifting, and high impact events, such as very fast running or jumping.
We sometimes think of these discs as fragile structures, almost like a balloon filled with fluid, which can pop at any moment if squeezed too hard. In fact, when healthy, they are surprisingly strong and resilient. This study shows once again, that our amazing bodies can adjust and adapt to almost any situation if given the appropriate conditions and time. The proper anabolic window for disc improvement is the load placed on it with fast walking and slow running. A lighter load is ineffective, and a heavier load may be damaging. It seems nature has designed us for this type of locomotion.
It is important to point out that there are numerous problems that can occur in the spine. Disc problems are only one of many that may cause back pain or disability. But it is heartening to know that those hardy discs are capable of self- improvement and growth.