Balance balls or running for back pain?

Published 6.29.2017
One of my tenets for health is that movement is essential for health. I prefer the term movement over exercise, because although I'm a huge fan of deliberate exercise and engage in it regularly, exercise isn't essential. People in the Blue Zones, the regions of the globe where— on a population level— people live longer and in health do not "kill it in the gym" lifting weights or running miles regularly. What they do is move on a daily basis rather than spend long hours sitting on their derrieres.

However, most people don't live in the Blue Zones and have jobs that require them to spend there days in front of a computer screen, which most people do while sitting. Back pain is a common complaint, and the question at hand are sitting on a balance ball or running good ways to alleviate back pain?

Spoiler alert: No and yes.

Balance balls are not a panacea for back pain, nor do they increase physical activity levels much. Nothing is a panacea of course, but I can remember when the balance ball fad came along for office furniture. I even tried sitting on one for a bit while working. This was the period of regular back pain, so I was hopeful it would help. Sitting on it was fine, and I didn’t do it expecting to burn any more energy. In terms of back pain, it did nothing for me.

Per the article, sitting on a balance ball and working expends about the same energy as standing and working. Most people prefer to sit while they work, but as I have written many times, I prefer to stand. My observation is that balance balls make it difficult to shift position, and they can be difficult to keep in one place when you aren’t sitting on them.

There used to be “stands” the balls could be set into that would keep them in place, but now you’ve increased the price of the option. Cost might not be an issue in some offices, but it certainly is in mine. A standing desk can be constructed (at least for the initial test of whether you can adapt to standing while working) with a box or a pile of books on a standard desk.

If your workstation is desk top there might be more logistics involved, but if you have a laptop, it’s almost that simply. I say almost because the shoes and flooring you stand on can be important considerations. Comfortable shoes are a must— no satanic high heels (and all high heels are satanic)— and I have found that having some padding in front of the desk helps too. I constructed my padding with supplies I had on hand, but there are products available for those with larger budgets.

Running, however, is good for the back as well as the knees. The news about running keeps getting better. The best news in the article is that a slow jogging pace (4 mph) is best. That’s a fast walk for taller people with a longer stride, but for me, that’s a jog. And it’s about as fast as I’ve been going on my 2-3 jogs a week.

Eventually they recruited 79 adult men and women, two-thirds of whom said that they were runners. Some of these told the researchers that they covered more than 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) a week in training. The researchers designated these as the “long-distance” group. The others said that they ran between 12 and 25 miles a week. All had been training for at least five years.

The final group rarely exercised at all.

The runners spinal discs were larger and had more fluid in them.

Since both greater size and increased levels of internal fluid indicate better disc health, the runners harbored fundamentally healthier spines than the people who were sedentary, says Daniel Belavy, a professor of physical activity and nutrition at Deakin University who led the study.

Mileage didn’t matter much, though these people were running more than I do currently. I am still running a mile or less in the middle of my longer brisk walks at an incline. My goal is to slowly increase the distance I jog. I do not jog on an significant incline. If I'm not feeling it, I stop.

Based on the comments on the article there are many skeptics out there. I’ve written before that proper running technique matters as does having the proper shoes for your feet, which mostly means a pair of shoes that is comfortable and doesn’t cause blisters. I am again experimenting with minimalist running shoes with reasonable success.