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The fact that June 5th was National Running Day was lost on many people. Why? The joints and muscles of most individuals are not flexible or strong enough to take the pounding that running requires. However, almost anyone can walk and this exercise seems to be as effective as running. There’s even recent research that proves this.

In April 2013, Paul Williams of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and Paul Thompson of Hartford Hospital in Connecticut compared 33,060 runners to 15,045 walkers and found that it’s how much a person exercises, in terms of energy spent, not how long he or she spends exercising. While it takes longer to walk a mile than to run one, when these two exercises compared in terms of energy expended, they are comparable yielding the same benefit.

The researchers measured blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol at the beginning, and then watched for six years to see who got diagnosed with high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol or diabetes. Those who exercised equally (in terms of energy output) got the same benefit whether they ran or walked. This study was published in the American Heart Association journal, “Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.”

In addition to these physical benefits, walking lowers stress levels in most people. A study at the Department of Behavioral Science at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center showed university students who walked had lower stress levels than sedentary people or even those who exercised strenuously. Plus, walking can be done almost anywhere – on the street, in a park or in a shopping center.

Is Back Pain Keeping You From Walking Tall?

With all of these benefits, why isn’t everyone walking every day? Sometimes, back pain precludes this activity. This is where the spine specialists at Texas Back Institute can be of assistance. We spoke with Dr. Stephen Tolhurst, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Texas Back Institute about the benefits and challenges of a regular walking program.

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To watch a video interview of Dr. Tolhurst explaining the benefits of walking for the back, please click here. 

Are there benefits to back health that are derived from a regular regimen of walking? If so, what are these?

Walking improves one’s overall health and this affects the whole body including the back and neck. The back tends to be healthier and less susceptible to injury and/or disease such as arthritis when an individual is active. Additionally, walking can help to keep the core muscles – abdominals, back and legs – stronger and this supports the back and neck.

What are some lower back problems that can keep someone from walking and how does one know when these pains are serious enough to visit the physicians at Texas Back Institute?

There is a condition called spinal stenosis, which is an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal that can occur in any of the regions of the spine. This narrowing causes a restriction to the spinal canal, resulting in a neurological deficit. The symptoms of spinal stenosis include pain, numbness and loss of motor control. The location of the stenosis determines which area of the body is affected. This can cause a “rubbery” feeling around the leg when walking. This condition is serious and should be treated by a spine specialist.

There are also situations where pain shoots down one’s leg when standing or walking. This could be caused by a herniated disc or pinched nerve and should also be treated by someone on our staff.

However, mild to moderate back pain or stiffness during or after walking is usually not serious. If the pain is not getting worse, it’s probably safe to work through. In fact, the exercise from walking will likely help this pain and stiffness.

What are the most common factors that can cause lower back pain and keep someone from walking?

The number one factor is a sedentary lifestyle and the lack of regular activity. In this situation, core muscles are weak and walking can cause back pain. Obesity also plays a role in back pain and it’s no surprise regular physical activity can help to reduce obesity. Sleeping on awkward surfaces, such as a cot, floor or even a too-soft mattress, can cause back pain.

Some people experience “side stitches” when they walk. Is this a back problem or not?

Side stiches are not a back issue. While there are lots of theories on what causes them, no one is sure. They are not dangerous but they are annoying. When I’ve gotten them, I’ve used deep breathing techniques – after inhaling, breathing out through pursed lips to force the exhale – and this helps me. Stopping and stretching is also a tactic to use to work out this pain. Under any circumstances, this is not a sign of spinal problem.

How You Can Get Started

Just knowing the physical and psychological benefits of walking is not sufficient to motivate most people to “put on their walking shoes.” Texas Back Institute is involved in the specialized care of neck and back pain, spine trauma, scoliosis, artificial disc replacement and related spine surgery – not fitness counseling. However, we recognize physical fitness can have very positive effects on one’s back health.

With this in mind, here are a few fun suggestions to get you and your entire family involved in a daily walking program.

  • Bring along a walking buddy. This can be friends or family and if they’re excited about feeling better…all the better!
  • Walking has to be fun, otherwise it’s boring. Finding visually interesting places to walk such as trails in parks and greenbelts and then combining natural studies such as bird watching or tree/flower identification activities with your walking buddy.
  • Purchase an inexpensive pedometer, clip it to your waist and keep track of the miles you walk each day. Some of these steps will come from your daily activities. The average person’s stride length is approximately 2.5 feet long and this means it takes just over 2,000 steps to walk one mile, and 10,000 steps is close to 5 miles. Set a reasonable and attainable goal and then log your daily steps in a journal and try to add more steps each day.
  • Take the stairs whenever possible. Climbing stairs is a great aerobic exercise and when you take them, you’re not stuck in an elevator with 5 or 10 other people.
  • Get some tunes for your walk with your mobile device and ear buds. Music is a wonderful addition to any walking program because it not only distracts the walker from fatigue, but sports psychologists have noted that a steady beat can elevate a person’s performance by as much as 20%! In order to get you in the mood, why not download some tunes that have “Walking” in the title. Here are some:

Spring and summer is a great time for you to step up to a walking program. With this advice from Dr. Tolhurst you have some of the medical facts you need to get started. Now all you need is your walking buddy, pedometer and walking tunes and you’re good to go. Are you ready? Start walking.

 

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The Olympics are going to be here before we know it. If you’re anything like some of the Texas Back Institute doctors and staff, you may find yourself motivated to push a little harder towards your personal fitness goals. If this is you, congratulations! Setting personal fitness goals is essential in making sure you don’t get bored with your workouts and it helps keep you on your toes.
Dr. Michael Duffy, Orthopedic Spine Surgeon at Texas Back Isntitute
Dr. Michael Duffy is an orthopedic spine surgeon here at Texas Back Institute and running is something he loves to do. In honor of the Olympics we have asked Dr. Duffy to share some of his running tips with our readers.

First things first…STRETCH! This can not be stressed enough. Stretching before you start your run is crucial. The last thing you want to do is pull a muscle just as you are getting close to reaching your fitness goals. Just take 5 minutes to stretch your legs, shoulders and arms. You can even do this while you are getting your iPod playlist ready to go.

Second, if you are running and you start to experience pain (unrelated to normal muscle fatigue) try icing the painful area and taking NSAIDs (Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). If your pain does not subside, take a look at your footwear. If you don’t have the right running shoes they may be causing imbalance thereby placing stress on your knees, hips and back. Most running stores can help fit you for shoes – you just have to ask. If all of this fails, consult your physician for further testing.

Third, and this time we saved the best for last, HYDRATE – HYDRATE – HYDRATE. It’s so hot out this time of year, especially in Texas, hydration can happen before you know it. Make sure to drink lots of water before, during and after you run! Even the Olympians have to hydrate.

Just getting into a running routine? Share with us what motivates you!

Go Team USA!

Remember, when starting any new exercise program it’s important to consult with your physician to make sure you are healthy enough to do so.

Pace yourself – most runner injuries are results of doing too much too soon.

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