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New research explains the psychological reasons as to why running can become addictive. Image credit: A.J. Schokora/Stocksy.
  • A new study looks at the role of escapism, a motivation known to be powerful, in exercise dependence.
  • The study finds that when people are running away, rather than toward something, they are more likely to feel bad about their lives.
  • Such people are at an increased risk of developing exercise dependence or addiction.

When it comes to running for recreation or exercise, a person’s motivation can be a critical factor in developing exercise dependence or not, according to a new study.

The study explores the role of escapism in running and finds that people who use the activity to escape life’s problems are more likely to develop an unhealthy exercise addiction.

Escapism as a powerful motivational factor has been explored in other contexts dating back to the 1990s. A new study now aims to fill a gap in research by investigating whether or not escapism plays a role in running, and what that role might be.

The research team, led by Dr. Frode Stenseng of the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology, recruited 227 recreational runners through social media sites.

Participants were evenly divided in terms of gender, and their running habits and styles varied. Anyone who reported running regularly was sent a study questionnaire to complete.

A questionnaire assessed the role of escapism in each participant’s running, the degree to which they were or were not dependent on this form of exercise, and their level of general life satisfaction.

The study appears in Frontiers of Psychology.

While running and exercise, in general, are recognized as being beneficial to health, some people become addicted to exercise, as described in a 2011 study led by psychotherapist Dr. Marilyn Freimuth.

A 1997 study found that about 25% of recreational runners become addicted to the activity, and about 50% of marathon runners feel dependent of the sport.

A 2021 study lists some signs of exercise addictions among athletes:

  • undertaking exaggerated exercise volumes
  • lack of control over how much they participate in their chosen form of exercise
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they stop exercising
  • and having conflicts with family and friends over exercise.

“Escapism” is defined as a “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.”

But not all escapism is alike. Dr. Stenseng told Medical News Today that he and his collaborators have been exploring the phenomenon of escapism for over 10 years and:

“We have repeatedly found that escapism comes in two forms: One that is about facilitating positive emotions through engaging in the activity (self-expansion), and one that is about suppressing disturbing thoughts and emotions through the activity (self-suppression).”

“Running is a very popular activity,” said Dr. Stenseng, “which can be quite absorbing, so we wanted to test whether we found this dualism of escapism also in running.”

The study found that self-expansive escapism was associated with a positive sense of well-being, while self-suppressive escapism was linked to a poor sense of well-being.

Dr. Freimuth, who was not involved in the current study, agrees with the authors’ notion that escapism is of two types, saying that “[d]istinguishing two types of motivation, one that is more pleasurable, and one that is about escape, is really interesting.”

She noted that self-suppressive escape is often associated with dependence on substances or activities.

The study suggests that self-suppressive escapism promotes negative feelings about one’s life, which then may spiral into even more exercise dependence.

“If you have limited means to escape/ avoid feelings,” said Dr. Freimuth, “and life circumstances or your internal world keep bringing up bad feelings, then the behavior can continue to increase in frequency, such that some adverse effects occur, like ignoring a responsibility, increasing exercise leading to an injury, etc.”

MNT asked Dr. Stenseng how a person can identify their own motivation in running, specifically whether self-expansive or -suppressive escapism is at play.

He answered that “one good question to ask oneself is: Do I feel refreshed or ashamed after I have worked out?”

“When you run with a self-suppressive mindset, you tend to feel ashamed afterward, not in an elevated state of mood,” explained Dr. Stenseng.

Considering that exercise dependence may be a response to serious life issues, resolving it means facing those issues as best one can.

“Any time a person is using a substance or behavior to escape from something in their life,” said Dr. Freimuth, “they need to identify the fear, the stress, the anxiety, etc., and begin to question its reality for them currently. And then take steps to reduce it.”

In situations where a person is attempting to manage unresolvable problems such as grief or insurmountable obstacles, suggested Dr. Freimuth, “[p]erhaps the most effective method is to learn how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without having to do anything.”