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Can Running to Escape Stress Cause Exercise Dependence?

Scientists from Norway suggest running to suppress emotions may harm wellbeing.

Escaping the stress of daily life is a common human behavior that takes many forms. For example, sometimes people lose themselves in a movie, while others sidetrack their negative thoughts with a hobby.

In psychological terms, escapism is engaging in an activity that helps a person avoid or forget about unpleasant emotions or boredom. Besides movies and hobbies, recreational exercise such as running can also help a person engage in escapism.

Although exercise is good for the body and the mind, sometimes people can develop exercise dependence. When this happens, exercising becomes excessive and can cause physical health issues.

According to research, about 25% of recreational runners show signs of exercise dependence or addiction.

To explore the possible associations between running and escapism, scientists from Norway decided to investigate the mindset and motivations of runners. Specifically, they wanted to determine if people used running for self-expansion (adaptive escapism) or self-suppression (maladaptive escapism) and how this impacted exercise dependence and wellbeing.

Experts believe that engaging in activities to promote self-expansion tends to have more positive effects and long-term benefits. On the other hand, activities used for self-suppression tend to repress positive and negative emotions — leading to avoidance.

For the study, published on January 25 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers recruited 227 recreational runners with varying running practices. The participants completed an exercise dependence scale and an escapism scale which measured their preference for self-expansion or self-suppression. They also filled out questionnaires about life satisfaction to determine their subjective wellbeing.

The scientists found little similarities between the participants who preferred self-expansion and those who favored self-suppression methods of escapism.

As suspected, self-expansion was positively associated with wellbeing. However, participants who ran for self-suppression did not have the same positive effects.

Although both methods of escapism were associated with exercise dependence, self-suppression had a stronger link. The team also found no link between any form of escapism and age, gender, or the time a person spent running.

Still, limitations to the study include the participants may not represent recreational runners in general, and few were considered competitive runners. The study authors say their findings suggest escapism is a relevant phenomenon in exercise, covering both adaptive and maladaptive aspects of escapism motivation.

"More studies using longitudinal research designs are necessary to unravel more of the motivational dynamics and outcomes in escapism," said lead author Dr. Frode Stenseng of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in a news release.

Stenseng advised, "But these findings may enlighten people in understanding their own motivation, and be used for therapeutical reasons for individuals striving with a maladaptive engagement in their activity."

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