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Can Running Be Good for Your Back?

Running is a great way to improve cardiovascular fitness and aid in weight loss, but many worry that pounding the pavement will take a toll on their back. However, a recent study says quite the contrary.

Posted: Nov. 21, 2017 12:00 AM
Updated: Nov. 21, 2017 12:00 AM

Running is a great way to improve cardiovascular fitness and aid in weight loss, but many worry that pounding the pavement will take a toll on their back.

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However, a recent study says quite the contrary.

Santhosh Thomas, D.O., MBA, an interventional spine specialist at Cleveland Clinic, did not take part in the study, but said the research supports the notion that running is better than sitting.

"This study actually is a good study to support that running is better than sitting," said Dr. Thomas. "They talked about the fact that the running does not have to be extreme."

Researchers looked at a group of 79 adult men and women; two-thirds of which were runners for at least five years. The rest of the people rarely exercised.

All of the participants wore accelerometers to track their level of activity.

Using specialized MRI scans, researchers measured the size and liquidity of each person's spinal discs.

They found, in general, the discs of the runners were larger and contained more fluid than the discs of the folks who did not exercise.

Dr. Thomas said deterioration of the discs are a normal part of the wear and tear of aging.

And while many folks would expect that running would increase disc deterioration, he said factors such as smoking, obesity, age and a family history of spinal disc problems have more of an impact.

When it comes to back pain, Dr. Thomas said disc deterioration can contribute to existing pain, but it's usually only part of the problem.

He said it's likely that runners are generally healthier overall, which decreases the likelihood of experiencing chronic pain.

"We all know running has many benefits – it decreases stress, it increases cardiac health, it decreases weight, it helps your mind and mood, so those things are going to be very helpful," said Dr. Thomas. "That will allow you to tolerate your running injuries or back issues, if you get any."

Dr. Thomas said the biggest surprise from the research was that the runners had slightly healthier discs, but he believes that more research needs to be done on a broader population of runners.

He said the important thing to remember is that it's good to run, or at least walk, because sitting for an excessive period of time does the most damage to the back and spine.

"I think running is very good for you," said Dr. Thomas. "You just have to use good body mechanics; pace yourself, and just because this study came out it doesn't mean you should start running without preparation. You should at least start with a nice, healthy walk, and then move onto jogging and then perhaps consider a little faster pace."

Complete results of the study can be found in the journal Nature.

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