Take A Hike: A Chiropractor’s Take On The Benefits Of Walking

We often think of walking as a way to get from point A to point B. We take it for granted most of the time and generally don’t get overly excited about it. I’m here to tell you, walking is considered one of the top exercises to help reduce back pain and promote spinal health!

Back Facts

Odds are, back pain has likely or will likely affect you in some way. 80% of Canadians experience back pain at some point in their lives. One in four of those people live with chronic lower back pain. Chronic low back pain costs Canadians $10 billion on an annual basis. Walking is a simple, cost effective way to help reduce and in some cases prevent symptoms of back pain. This is why I usually prescribe walking to my patients as a component of their treatment plan in order to help improve our clinical results. A combination of core strengthening, stretching, and aerobic exercises like walking performed 2-3 times per week can reasonably be recommended for the prevention of lower back pain in the general population.

Patients with back pain often avoid walking because they associate pain with any type of movement. In some rare cases, walking may not be the best option to get these individuals moving, but in the general population, this thought process is wrong. Studies show, the benefits of walking far outweigh any temporary soreness or discomfort due to initiating any walking program. A group of scientists examined the risk vs. benefit of exercise for chronic lower back pain. They found evidence that supports the use of exercise to manage back pain was safe and effective. One study evaluated 498 adults and found that low levels of back fitness were associated with back dysfunction and pain, and high fitness related to positive back health (1). Another study looked at 640 school children over a period of 25 years and found those who exercised at least 3 hours per week had significantly lower lifetime risk for back pain. It was also reported that poor physical health increases the risk of new low back pain episodes in a population without a history of lower back pain. Exercise also reduces the risk of lower back pain and associated disability. Another study found that exercise prevented lower back pain by 35-45% and sick leave due to lower back pain by 25-75%.

Walking Has A Balancing Effect On Your Spinal Discs

What’s actually happening in and around our spine when we walk? In order to answer this question, you must first understand the basic anatomy of the spine. Try to picture the spine as a long chain of joints that are protected by ligaments and muscles. There are fluid containing discs that lie between squishy blocks called vertebrae. These fluid filled discs help provide adequate space between our joints located at the rear of our vertebrae called facet joints, and also provides cushioning between our vertebral bodies. These structures are extremely dependent on motion for maintaining its health. Your body strives for homeostasis; the ability to maintain internal stability in the body to compensate for environmental changes. Similarly, your spine tries to accomplish this also.

Fun fact: When you measure yourself in the morning, you are taller than when you go back to bed. This is because your discs absorb fluid while you are horizontal or asleep. If you lay down for too long, you might start noticing a bit of back pain. This type of back pain is due to the increased axial forces being placed on your vertebra from its neighbouring fluid absorbing discs. Similar to wringing out a sponge, movements of the spine such as bending and twisting help transfer the waste products of metabolism from the discs. This returns the discs to a normal position, thereby relaxing the increased tension of the discs and forces being place on the neighbouring vertebrae.

On the contrary, spinal discs can also be dehydrated. While you are awake and going about your daily activities, the pressures of gravity compresses the spine, and in turn squeezes some of the fluid out of your discs throughout the day. This side effect of gravity can often leave our discs a bit dehydrated. Dehydrated discs can cause discomfort and structural problems over time. Because spinal discs lack adequate blood supply, they must also rely on motion to absorb essential nutrients for repair. Walking can help increase circulation throughout your body, including your spine. This increase in blood flow helps to rehydrate your discs, keeping your spine young and improving your spinal health. Getting a restful sleep and drinking enough water can also help keep your spine hydrated.

Walking Reduces Stress On The Spine & Between The Ears

“Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional, and mental states.” -Carol Welch-Baril, Neuromuscular therapist.

Incorporating a regular walking routine also helps to reduce back pain through a release of an anti-stress hormones called dopamine and serotonin. These elevated endorphin levels following exercise produce improvements in mood. They have analgesic properties that occur naturally in the brain, spinal cord, adrenals gland, gut and sympathetic nerves. They can elevate mood and reduce the brains perception of pain, with effects like those of the powerful drug morphine.

Being physically active can also have a positive effect on patients diagnosed as having symptoms of anxiety, and mild to moderate depression. A Canadian fitness survey of 22,000 Canadians found inactive people reported more symptoms related to negative moods than people who said they were moderately or very active in their leisure time (6).

Walking Can Improve Your Posture

The human body was meant to move. A sedentary lifestyle can cause weakness and shortening of the muscles and ligamentous tissues of the spine, reducing your body’s ability to move properly through it’s normal range of motion, and provide support to your back. Walking is a great low impact form of aerobic activity that will help combat this stiffening process and strengthen your back and core muscles. When your back and core muscles are not being used, they can atrophy and weaken. This process often results in poor posture. Poor posture can lead to several different problems in the body. The main ones include neck, mid-back and lower back pain, feelings of tension and soreness in the body, and headaches. Walking is one of many ways you can strengthen the supporting muscle groups of the spine. Having stronger back muscles will make it easier on your body to adopt the correct posture. There are many benefits of good posture: reduced risk of back pain and headaches, improved organ function, and improved ease of breathing.

It is often beneficial to consult a chiropractor and/or physiotherapist in order to determine the exercise program that best suits any given individual, and screen for readiness to start a walking program, especially if you already have a spinal condition or are already experiencing back pain. As a general rule of thumb, if you are not an experienced walker or if you’re dealing with severe pain, it’s a good idea to begin with several short walks every day and slowly build up to a single long walk.

Visiting a chiropractor is a great option if you are looking for advice on how to improve your spinal health. After all, the spine is such an important part of the body, you are best to take excellent care of it. In return, it will keep you moving for a long, long time.

References:

  1. Shiri et al. (2017). Exercise for the prevention of low back pain: systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled trials. Volume 187, Issue 5
  2. J. Rainville, C. Hartigan, E. Martinez, J. Limeke, C. Jouve, M. Finno. (2004). Exercise as a treatment for chronic lower back pain. Spine (1); 106-15.
  3. Murphy, KA et al. (2006). Health State Descriptions for Canadians: Musculoskeletal Diseases. Statistics Canada, catalogue no. 82-619-MIE2006003. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
  4. Eli Lilly. (2011). Canada. Sample of 311 Canadian Adults who experience low back pain.
  5. Nanos research (SES) (2007). “Canadian Pain Survey”
  6. Stephens, T. (1988). Physical activity and mental health in the United States and Canada: Evidence from four population surveys. Preventative Medicine 17: 35-47.

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