Goldilocks and Your Spine

You may be wondering what in the world a fictional character (who likes to trespass on other people’s properties) has to do with your spine, but bear with me.  

Okay, no more puns. I promise.

The Goldilocks Principle is adapted from the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to describe the concept of “just the right amount”. This principle also applies to how you treat your spine as well the loading that it undergoes. 

The Goldilocks Principle

Many people assume that the more active you are, the healthier you are and the less chance you have of back injury. However, this is not necessarily so; very active people tend to put themselves in situations of high spinal load or cumulative load that less active people do not. In fact, the injury itself usually occurs when someone is being active, not sedentary.

But the opposite is also true. Load is necessary for optimal health of your spine. While you’re unlikely to get injured while sitting on the couch and bingeing on Netflix, you are not loading your spine sufficiently to allow it to adapt and become more resilient to injury.

A very common situation with modern living – particularly with us city-dwellers – is that we tend to be both extremely sedentary and then extremely active. Instead of our lives generally being infused with a healthy level of physical activity, we tend to see-saw between the two extremes, sitting for most of the day, then going crazy at the gym or out on the track and right back to lounging on the couch. The result of this is often injury with the physical activity because we haven’t built up the necessary capacity.

There is another important factor related to this and that is REST

The graphs above represent the changes in tolerance as we repetitively load our spine through various physical activities (the same is true when it is one load that is sustained for a long period, such as staying in a bent-over position for gardening for example). As you load your spine, the tolerance becomes lower as time goes on, thereby increasing the chances of injury. 

Although it’s awkward telling someone your back injury occurred when you picked a pencil off the floor, this is often because it followed an accumulation of “microtrauma” and by the time it occurred, your tolerance was significantly lowered and was unable to deal with even a small load.

The graph on the right shows the same situation of applying a load repeatedly but when rest is added to the equation, time is allowed for adaptation and the tolerance can increase again, often to higher levels than it was before.  Keep in mind that this rest refers to resting from the particular activity or type of load, not necessarily lying on your back doing nothing!

[The graphs above are taken from the book Low Back Disorders by Prof. Stuart McGill]

Physical activity fun

Essentially, the take-away is this:

  • Challenge your spine so that it is healthy and stimulated to adapt to what life throws at it
  • When you do challenge your spine, experiment to find the “Goldilocks Zone” (which is unique to your anatomy, activity history, genetics etc. and will change as you adapt) so that you don’t exceed the tolerance and create injury
  • Remember that rest is as important as the challenge itself in the adaptation process

So.. have fun and be active but make sure you are being kind to your spine in the process!

Thank you for reading and, if you can, take this moment to take a quick break from sitting!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *