// Exercise and the spine

by Heidi Mitchell 

As fitness professionals, we tend to focus on the fundamentals of body mass, nutrition and exercise regimes rather than delve into the intricacies of the workings of the body and their importance in the delivery of our services. There is general awareness in the fitness world that the nervous system is the supreme commander of all the functions of the human body, but there is less understanding of the impact that exercise has on the nervous system and the physiological mechanisms behind this impact.

The nervous system controls and coordinates every function and structure in the body. Regardless of exercise levels and quality of nutrition, if interference to the nervous system exists, the body cannot function at its best. Understanding the need for optimal nervous system operation is essential for better performance and, consequently, a better life. The nervous system ultimately governs energy levels, mood swings, resistance to illness and disease, capacity to handle stressful situations, concentration span and metabolic activity. An unimpeded nervous system is crucial for maintaining the balance of chemicals in the body (including hormones), which determines overall performance.

Spinal dynamics and the nervous system Sensory information from the internal and external environments of the body is constantly carried back to the central nervous system (CNS) via afferent neurons (nerve cells) where it is processed and integrated. Appropriate commands are then formulated and sent out to the different parts of the body via efferent neurons, which enables the body to respond, function and perform at its optimum levels. 

The central nervous system is covered by three protective and supportive membranous layers called meninges. The innermost layer is the
pia mater, a thin fibrous membrane that adheres directly to the brain and spinal cord. The next layer is the arachnoid mater, and in the pace between these, the cerebrospinal fluid flows, bathing the central nervous system and providing nutritional support, shock absorption and waste removal mechanisms. The outermost layer is the dura mater, a thicker, more resilient membrane which is the final protective barrier for the delicate nerve tissue housed within.

Inside the brain and spinal cord are billions of neurons (nerve cells capable of transmitting information), but about ten times as many glial cells (nerve cells that don’t transmit information, but carry out other vital neural functions).

It is the combination of these cells with the meninges and other connective tissues around the spinal cord that holds most interest for those involved in human movement, fitness and exercise physiology.

The posterior longitudinal ligament lies in the neural canal and runs all the way from the body of the axis vertebrae (C2) to the sacrum, attaching to the posterior margin of each vertebral body and to the annular fibres of the intervertebral discs. Above C2, it becomes the tectorial membrane, anchoring in the occipital bone (base of the skull) and becoming continuous with the dura mater around the brain. There is a series of tiny but strong ligaments that attach the anterior dura mater to the posterior longitudinal ligament all the way throughout the spinal column, and more that connect the posterior dura mater to the ligamentum flavum (an elastic ligament that bilaterally connects the lamina of each vertebra to those above and below throughout the entire spine, thus forming part of the posterior margin of the neural canal).

Astrocytes, which are a type of glial cell, combine with the pia mater throughout the CNS to form the pia-glial membrane, which directly connects the spinal cord and brain with the dura mater and surrounding bony structures. There are also denticulate ligaments that
project from the pia mater through the meninges at each spinal level.

The effects of exercise
In any form of exercise where a reasonable range of spinal movement is initiated, there is constant tension placed on these many attachments between the CNS and the spine (in particular) and skull. This is very important, and part of the real benefit of exercise, because all of these structures require movement for stimulation and maintenance of their cellular activities and chemical environments. 

Astrocytes, particularly, have many executive roles to play in nervous system function, including regulating blood supply to neurons, governing production of major neurotransmitter substances, repairing damaged nerve tissue and stimulating maturation of neural stem
cells, controlling the quantities of certain substances in the extracellular environment that are vital to nerve transmission, and helping to form the blood-brain barrier which protects the brain from toxic chemicals. In activities such as yoga and some forms of Pilates, the full range of movement of the spine is traversed, giving constructive stimulation to the astrocytes, neuronsand meninges, meaning that the
nervous system is given a far greater opportunity to function properly.

It must also be noted that the spinal column is the major weight-bearing structure in the human body, and also the main axis of movement. It is therefore unsurprising that it is also the structure most commonly damaged when the body is subjected to excessive force through
acute trauma, poorly distributed weightbearing (such as with certain types of exercise and postural habits) or extreme movement (which can occur when some movements are performed beyond optimum limits). Once the connective tissues, particularly the ligaments which
are responsible for maintaining proper spinal relationships (the range and timing of movements between each vertebra), are damaged, it is very difficult for the body to repair them, not only because of the constant movement and weightbearing, but also because these structures
have very little blood supply. However, the real problem from that point on is that the body loses some of its ability to maintain proper dynamic relationships between these vertebrae, and the nervous system then becomes compromised because of the inevitable changes to functioning of the nerve cells and meninges. Once such a situation (called spinal obtrusion) occurs, any force that comes to bear on the body that it is unable to deal with will exploit those weak and damaged areas, meaning that the problem continues to compound.

Such damage cannot be repaired through exercise, massage or rest, because these processes don’t address the body’s attempts to regain control of the specific vertebral relationships so crucial to nervous system function.

When we cut ourselves, the body goes through a number of processes to begin repairing the damage and stimulating the growth of new tissue. Similarly, when the connective tissues around the spinal column are damaged, the body urgently seeks to restore proper neural
environment by using the spinal muscles in an attempt to regain control of the relationships between the vertebrae.

This process is given the highest priority by the body, because of the devastation that such loss of relationship will wreak on the proper functioning of the nervous system. Because of the constant weightbearing and movement that the spinal column is subjected to, the opportunities for lasting reorganisation and correction of these situations is limited without external assistance.

Spinology is a profession that has evolved for this very purpose: to help the body reorganise the connective tissues around the spine and regain full control of the intervertebral dynamics, thus enabling the nervous system to function properly.

Its philosophical foundations lie in the understanding that living tissue always attempts to adapt the forces to which it is exposed for constructive purposes within that tissue. Spinology Dimensional Analysis detects spinal obtrusions by challenging the intrinsic muscles around the spinal column and identifying the responsive muscle fibres that are attempting to restore and maintain the proper relationships between vertebrae. 

Spinologists use gentle and specific techniques to assist the body to make lasting reconstructive changes by stimulating neural facilitation and the creation of new neural connections, better blood supply and enhanced ability to deal with the forces to which the body is subjected. Spinologists are highly qualified through an Advanced Diploma program that combines precise analytical and technical training with in-depth anatomy, physiology and spinal dynamics, as well as communication skills, marketing, business management and the building
of professional confidence. For personal trainers and others in the fitness industry, spinology training is a natural expansion of their existing objectives, enabling them to help people function and live better, and to offer precise, ‘cutting edge’ services in the realm of body performance.

Spinology fits perfectly with the performance-oriented objectives of the emerging new breed of fitness clubs that are no longer just gyms,
but centres for total body and mind wellness. By combining spinology with activities such as yoga, Pilates and functional training, members
give themselves a broad spectrum of highly beneficial outcomes and the opportunity for a new, stellar, level of performance.


Heidi Mitchell


With a background in personal training and fitness instruction, Heidi is the head of student services and academic development for the Academy of Applied Functional Sciences. She is also a successful ‘spinologist’ with a busy practice at V Club in Sydney. Heidi’s special interest lies in high level professional communication and continual research into bodily function. For more information e-mail heidi@neurospinology.com.au