Running to escape everyday stresses? It may cause exercise dependence, study finds

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Recreational running offers a lot of physical and mental health benefits—but some people can develop exercise dependence, a form of addiction to physical activity which can cause health issues.

Shockingly, signs of exercise dependence are common even in recreational runners.

In a study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, scientists found that running to escape everyday stresses may lead to running dependence, instead of mental well-being.

They examined the links between running, well-being, and exercise dependence.

Escapism can restore perspective, or it can act as a distraction from problems that need to be tackled. Escapism which is adaptive, seeking out positive experiences, is referred to as self-expansion.

Meanwhile, maladaptive escapism, avoiding negative experiences, is called self-suppression. Effectively, running as exploration or as evasion.

Escapist activities used for self-expansion have more positive effects but also more long-term benefits. Self-suppression, by contrast, tends to suppress positive feelings as well as negative ones and leads to avoidance.

In the study, the team tested 227 recreational runners, half men and half women, with widely varying running practices.

They were asked to fill out questionnaires that tested three different aspects of escapism and exercise dependence:

an escapism scale which measured preference for self-expansion or self-suppression, an exercise dependence scale, and satisfaction with life scale designed to measure the participants’ subjective well-being.

The scientists found that there was very little overlap between runners who favored self-expansion and runners who preferred self-suppression modes of escapism.

Self-expansion was positively related to well-being, while self-suppression was negatively related to well-being.

Self-suppression and self-expansion were both linked to exercise dependence, but self-suppression was much more strongly linked to it.

Neither escapism mode was linked to age, gender, or the amount of time a person spent running, but both affected the link between well-being and exercise dependence.

Whether or not a person fulfilled the criteria for exercise dependence, a preference for self-expansion would still be linked to a more positive sense of their own well-being.

Although exercise dependence corrodes the potential well-being gains from exercise, it seems that perceiving lower well-being may be both a cause and an outcome of exercise dependency: the dependency might be driven by lower well-being as well as promoting it.

Similarly, experiencing positive self-expansion might be a psychological motive that promotes exercise dependence.

If you care about mental health, please read studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and Vitamin D could help reduce depression symptoms.

For more information about mental health, please see recent studies about vegetarianism linked to higher risk of depression, and results showing being around birds is linked to better mental health.

The study was conducted by Dr. Frode Stenseng et al and published in Frontiers in Psychology.

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