Literally running away from your problems might just give you new ones

It’s well known that recreational running can have physical and mental health benefits, but new research suggests doing it as a way to escape from your everyday problems might lead to exercise dependence.

It’s a form of addiction to physical activity which can result in uncontrollable, excessive exercise behaviour and can cause a multitude of health issues ranging from pain and injury to illness.

Specifically, says the study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, different kinds of escapism can motivate people to run recreationally, but using running to escape from negative experiences, rather than to escape to positive ones, may lead to problems.

“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,” says lead author Frode Stenseng, a professor in pedagogic psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“Escapism is often defined as ‘an activity, or a form of entertainment, that helps you avoid or forget unpleasant or boring things’. In other words, many of our everyday activities may be interpreted as escapism,” explains 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.”

Read more: Runners maintain the same pace regardless of distance.

But there isn’t just one flavour of escapism.

Adaptive escapism, in which people seek out positive experiences to promote positive emotions, is referred to as self-expansion and is more likely to result in a more positive effect.

On the other hand, maladaptive escapism, in which people avoid negative experiences, is referred to as self-suppression and can tend to suppress positive feelings as well as negative ones, and lead to avoidance.

“These two forms of escapism are stemming from two different mindsets, to promote a positive mood, or prevent a negative mood,” said Stenseng.

The team asked 227 recreational runners with varying running practices 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 wellbeing. 

Read more: Nordic walking: a quirky exercise regime proves helpful for heart disease patients.

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

Self-expansion escapism had a positive relationship with subjective well-being, whereas self-suppression had a negative one and was more strongly related to exercise dependence compared to the former.

“More studies using longitudinal research designs are necessary to unravel more of the motivational dynamics and outcomes in escapism,” says 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.”

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