Running to escape stress can generate dependence on exercise

The benefits of physical exercise have been revealed in numerous scientific studies, and also the running have advantages for physical and mental health, however, when this activity is practiced for cope with everyday stress can have negative consequences because we could develop exercise dependence, a kind of addiction to physical activity. Running recreationally and as a way to escapism – mental evasion or escape from reality– would therefore have a counterproductive effect in some cases.

This is at least the conclusion reached by the authors of a new investigation that has been published in Frontiers in Psychology. And it is that, as stated by Dr. Frode Stenseng of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and main author of the article: “Escapeism is an everyday phenomenon among humans, but little is known about its motivational foundations, how it affects experiences and psychological results.

Running to escape from reality

Many of the activities that we carry out every day are actually a form of escapism because their objective is to entertain us or have fun so that we can escape from problems and try to forget the negative aspects of life. “The psychological reward of escapism it’s less self-awareness, less rumination, and relief from the most pressing or stressful thoughts and emotions,” Stenseng says.

Perceived decreased well-being could be both a cause and a consequence of exercise dependence

Escapism can be positive if it helps us improve our perspective of reality, but it can also work as a distraction from problems that need to be solved. It is called self-expansion to adaptive escapism in which positive experiences are sought, and is known as self-suppression maladaptive escapism, which is based on avoiding negative experiences. And you can run as exploration or as evasion.

According to Stenseng: “These two forms of escapism derive from two different mindsets, to promote a positive mood or prevent a negative mood.” Escapist activities done for self-expansion not only have a more positive impact, but provide more long-term benefits, while self-suppression tends to suppress both positive and negative emotions and leads to avoidance.

Negative escapism is associated with exercise dependence

The researchers recruited 227 recreational runners (50% men and 50% women) whose running techniques varied widely, who answered surveys to investigate three different aspects of escapism and exercise dependence: an escapism scale measuring preference for self-expansion or self-suppression, an exercise dependency scale, and a life satisfaction scale that was intended to assess participants’ subjective well-being.

Thus, they verified that self-expansion was positively related to well-being, and self-suppression was negatively related to well-being. Although both types of escapism were associated with exercise dependence, the self-suppression link was much stronger. Age, gender, or the amount of time a person spent running were not related to escapism, but did influence the relationship between well-being and exercise dependence. Regardless of whether or not an individual meets the criteria for exercise dependence, the preference for self-expansion would still be linked to a more positive sense of their own well-being.

The results revealed that exercise dependence eliminates the potential increases in well-being that exercise provides, but suggest that perceived decreased well-being could be both a cause and a consequence of exercise dependence; that is, that dependency could be caused by less well-being, in addition to promoting it. Similarly, experiencing positive self-expansion could be a psychological factor contributing to exercise dependence.

In Stenseng’s opinion the study findings can help people understand their motivation and be used “for therapeutic purposes for people who struggle with maladaptive participation in their activity”, although the scientist acknowledges that further studies are necessary to clarify other motivational dynamics and results in escapism.


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