Running, both as a recreational activity and a form of exercise, has been shown to have many physical and mental health benefits. However, some individuals may develop an addiction to physical activity, known as exercise dependence, which can lead to negative health consequences. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology delved into the link between running, overall well-being, and exercise dependence, utilizing the concept of escapism as a means of understanding this relationship.

According to Dr Frode Stenseng, lead author of the paper, escapism is a common phenomenon among people, but there is still much to be learned about its underlying motivations, impact on experiences, and psychological effects.

Running to Explore or to Evade?

“Escapism is often described as a way to avoid or forget unpleasant or boring things,” said Stenseng. “Many of our daily activities can be seen as escapism. The psychological benefit of escapism is the decrease in self-awareness, less dwelling on things, and a sense of relief from one’s most pressing thoughts and emotions.”

Escapism can either provide a new perspective or serve as a distraction from problems that require attention. Adaptive escapism, which involves seeking out positive experiences, is referred to as self-expansion. On the other hand, maladaptive escapism, which involves avoiding negative experiences, is called self-suppression. Essentially, running can be perceived as a form of self-exploration or self-evasion.

According to Stenseng, these two forms of escapism stem from different mindsets; one aims to promote a positive mood, while the other aims to prevent a negative mood. Engaging in escapist activities for self-expansion tend to have more positive effects and more long-term benefits, while self-suppression tends to suppress both positive and negative feelings and lead to avoidance.

Self-suppression Associated with Exercise Dependence

The study team recruited 227 recreational runners (half men and half women) with varying running habits. They were asked to complete questionnaires that examined three different aspects of escapism and exercise dependence: an escapism scale that measured the 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 researchers found that there was very little overlap between runners who preferred self-expansion and those who preferred self-suppression modes of escapism. They found that self-expansion was positively related to well-being, while self-suppression was negatively related to well-being. Both self-suppression and self-expansion were linked to exercise dependence, but self-suppression was much more strongly associated with it.

The researchers also found that 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. They found that regardless of whether a person fulfilled criteria for exercise dependence, a preference for self-expansion would still be linked to a more positive sense of well-being.

The study found that although exercise dependence can erode the potential well-being gains from exercise, it appears that perceiving lower well-being may be both a cause and an outcome of exercise dependence. The dependence may be driven by lower well-being, as well as perpetuate it.

The study also suggests that experiencing positive self-expansion might be a psychological motivation that promotes exercise dependence. According to lead author Stenseng, more studies with longitudinal research designs are needed to fully understand the motivational dynamics and outcomes of escapism.

However, these findings can provide insight for people to understand their own motivation, and can be used for therapeutic reasons for individuals struggling with maladaptive engagement in their activity.