As a common form of aerobic exercise, running has many known cardiovascular benefits that promote healthy aging and overall wellness.

In addition to the well-known benefits, long-distance running has positive effects on your spine and body composition. Exercise science professor Ulrike Mitchell shares findings from her research to explain these less-known effects of endurance running.

The impact of endurance running on your spine

Your spine is a flexible column that consists of bones, the vertebral bodies, fibrocartilages and the intervertebral discs. Together they support your body, so you must support them as well.

Disc health

Herniated and bulging discs can cause long-term pain and disability. As you age, the morphology of the disc changes because it loses its ability to attract water. Without adequate hydration, the disc does not receive the necessary nutrients and it becomes harder to remove waste products. After the age of 30, there is an increased rate of normal age-related disc degeneration. The peak for these degenerative changes occurs around the age of 50. Middle-aged, long-term endurance runners exhibit less age-related decline in their lumbar discs compared to sex-, height-, and weight-matched non-runners.

Bone density

One of the most well-known benefits of running is its ability to increase bone mineral density. However, long-term endurance running does not increase density in the lumbar spine. Because the lumbar spine is primarily made up of trabecular bone, it needs more time to recover and strengthen itself. Other bone areas, like the femoral neck, are made up of cortical bone and do not require as much rest time to benefit from high-impact exercise. Routine long-distance running can reduce the speed of bone mineral density loss in some bones, but not in all.

How endurance running changes your body composition

Lean mass is the mass of your body and its organs minus the body fat. Aerobic exercise increases your ability to burn fat, thus relatively increasing your body’s lean mass.

Lean mass and fat storage

Typically, lean mass starts to decline in your 40s. However, middle-aged, long-term endurance runners were found to store less fat mass and more muscle tissue in the trunk area compared to sedentary adults with similar height and weight. These middle-aged, long-term endurance runners are therefore less likely to have coronary heart disease and metabolic syndrome. Making your lean mass a conscious priority positively impacts your body’s functionality and long-term health.

Endurance running has many commonly known advantages, but the less-known benefits affect equally important aspects of your health. With so many people suffering from back pain and the threat of metabolic diseases, you must take advantage of your body’s capabilities and consider what you can do to protect it.