A 2017 study 1 determined that fast-walking and slow running can strengthen the intervertebral disc. While it was previously assumed that the metabolism in intervertebral discs (IVD) was not responsive enough to make any substantial changes over the course of a human lifetime, the new study demonstrates that moderately-paced walking or running can improve IVD hydration, hypertrophy, and glycosaminoglycan content in the lower lumbar spine.
The study enlisted participants between the ages of 25 to 35 years old who had no history of significant spinal injury or surgery, scoliosis and were not experiencing current spinal pain. Smokers, pregnant or possibly pregnant women, and those with claustrophobia were also excluded from the study. The study participants were divided into three groups: long distance runners with a history of running at least 50 km per week for the past five years; joggers who ran 20 to 40 km per week for the past five years; and a “no-sports” group, who were minimally active, with less than 150 minutes of activity per week.
Scanning was performed on each of the participants—who refrained from exercise on the day of testing— during the afternoon, when IVD water content is most stable. The participants remained still for 20 minutes prior to the scan. While they were sitting, they filled out questionnaires regarding their vital statistics and sitting or exercise habits. After their scans were completed, the participants were given a hip-mounted ActiGraph to wear during all activities for eight except swimming or bathing. The data collected from these devices was then uploaded into a digital software program for analysis.
Joggers and long-distance runners showed a significantly more positive anabolic response in their IVD than the “no-sports” participants. Their discs were better hydrated, and their glycosaminoglycan levels were roughly two times higher than the non-athletes.
Based upon this study, we can conclude that dynamic IVD loading of .2 to .8— with the subsequent intra-discal pressures of roughly .3 to 1.2 MPa—could be the best loading amount for the IVD. The in vivo disc pressure data suggests that most moderate walking and running—but not heavy lifting or lying down—occur within this range of loading pressure.
Most disc degeneration is attributed to lower lumbar IVDs, often in association with repetitive spinal loading. Though running does cause repetitive spinal loading, the study participants showed no ill effects in their lower lumbar segments. Instead, they exhibited positive changes, including better IVD hydration and glycosaminoglycan content than the subject group participants that were not active. In healthy individuals, running may benefit the lower lumbar IVDs. This information could lead to better prophylactic deterrents for disc herniation and degeneration—one of the most prevalent disabilities in our society and a leading cause of spinal pain.
- Running exercise strengthens the intervertebral disc ↩