A middle aged male athlete goes for a cold, winter run in Utah, USA during a break in the snow storms. The sky is blue and the sun is shining. He is running to maintain his good mental and physical health and enjoying nature in the winter.
Photo by Rich Vintage/Getty

We know the benefits of running, but most of us find endless reasons not to: kids, chores, work—plus it’s tiring. But research by exercise-science professor Ulrike H. Mitchell (PhD ’05) might just provide that needed push to lace up and hit the pavement. In studies of middle-aged male long-term endurance runners published in 2020, she found benefits for spinal health and body composition.

One study found that “crazy runners,” men who log close to 100 miles per week, experienced less intervertebral-disc degeneration. Discs that age more slowly, Mitchell explains, better protect the spine throughout life. She also noted increased density in these runners’ femoral necks, making them less prone to hip fractures. And even those who run more manageable distances have a healthier fat distribution. 

Still, Mitchell—a 20-time marathoner—doesn’t recommend running every day or for hours. The “crazy runners” she studied actually showed decreased spinal bone density, which she thinks could be because their bones weren’t given enough time to recover.

Mitchell is now searching for the running “sweet spot”—that amount of running that preserves the intervertebral discs without deteriorating the spinal bones. She believes running could become a treatment for back pain and delaying disc degeneration.

For Mitchell, running is about accomplishing hard things. “You don’t . . . have to run marathons. You just need to . . . show your body that it’s there to move,” she says. “As long as I can help in that movement towards movement, then [my research is] worth it.” 

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