Running and Degenerative Disc Disease

Will I Harm My Spine if I Continue to Run?

Question: I'm a 52-year-old avid runner, and I've recently been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, which flares up every so often. I'm scared I'm going to do further damage to my spine if I continue to run, but I don't want to give up running. Is it safe for me to continue to run? If so, what should my routine be?
—Colorado Springs, COmale runner running uphill Answer: It's great to hear that you're incorporating cardiovascular exercise into your routine, but because you've been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease (DDD), you may have to switch up your exercise program a bit.

When you have DDD, it means you've lost some of the elasticity, flexibility, and shock-absorbing capacity of your spine.

DDD involves your intervertebral discs. Healthy, fluid-filled discs are a cushion between your vertebrae and help your spine to move and carry your weight. But with DDD, these discs become stiff and rigid, which can cause back pain.

That's why it's so important for you to take good care of your spine, especially when you run.

Like other forms of aerobic exercise, running is good for us—mentally and physically. It improves your circulation, boosts your mood, helps you feel calmer, and keeps you fit.

You don't have to give up running, but just like other strenuous physical activities, you should run in moderation instead of running every day.

Alternate running every other day with less strenuous activities, such as yoga, and don't forget to give yourself a day or 2 off a week from exercise.

I'm actually currently training for a half-marathon, and I know it would be difficult for me to stop running. But try incorporating other activities into your routine that don't put as much pressure on your spine. Low-impact activities, such as swimming, doing the elliptical, and yoga, may be more beneficial for your spine—and your joints—in the long run.

Also, incorporate strengthening exercises into your routine. These types of exercises can build crucial muscle in your back and may even help support your spine.

Other tips to keep in mind for a healthy spine:

  • Give your muscles and joints time to rest and recover after you run.
  • Get plenty of sleep—at least 7 to 8 hours a night.
  • Make healthy food choices: Eat mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and mentally and physically sharp.

Being diagnosed with DDD doesn't mean that you're running days are over, but you should take good care of your spine now so that running can be a part of your routine in the future.