Researchers have discovered that utilizing running as a means of escaping from unpleasant experiences rather than as a way to attain positive ones may result in a dependence on exercise for runners.
While recreational running offers numerous physical and mental health benefits, some individuals may become addicted to physical activity in the form of exercise dependence, which can have adverse effects on their health. Surprisingly, symptoms of exercise dependence are prevalent among recreational runners. A new study recently published in Frontiers in Psychology explored the connection between running, wellbeing, and exercise dependence through the lens of escapism.
“Escapism is an everyday phenomenon among humans, but little is known regarding its motivational underpinnings, how it affects experiences, and the psychological outcomes from it,” said Dr. Frode Stenseng of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, lead author of the paper.
Running to explore or to evade?
“Escapism is often defined as ‘an activity, a form of entertainment, etc. that helps you avoid or forget unpleasant or boring things’. In other words, many of our everyday activities may be interpreted as escapism,” said Stenseng. “The psychological reward from escapism is reduced self-awareness, less rumination, and a relief from one’s most pressing, or stressing, thoughts and emotions.”
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.
“These two forms of escapism are stemming from two different mindsets, to promote a positive mood, or prevent a negative mood,” said Stenseng.
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.
Self-suppression associated with exercise dependence
The team recruited 227 recreational runners, half men, and half women, with widely varying running practices. They were asked to fill out questionnaires which investigated 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 a 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 relationship between well-being and exercise dependence. Whether or not a person fulfilled 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.
“More studies using longitudinal research designs are necessary to unravel more of the motivational dynamics and outcomes in escapism,” said Stenseng. “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.”
Reference: “Running to get ‘lost’? Two types of escapism in recreational running and their relations to exercise dependence and subjective well-being” by Frode Stenseng, Ingvild Bredvei Steinsholt, Beate Wold Hygen and Pål Kraft, 25 January 2023, Frontiers in Psychology.