Running for Stress Reduction Can Lead To Exercise Dependence

Recreational running has many positive effects on both physical and mental health, but some people can become physically addicted to exercise, a condition known as exercise dependence. Surprisingly, even among casual runners, signs of exercise dependence are prevalent.

“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.  Stenseng is lead author of the paper, which examined whether the idea of escapism can aid in our comprehension of the connection between running, psychological well-being, and exercise dependence.

Reduced Self-awareness

Escapism is frequently referred to as “an activity, a form of entertainment, etc. that aids in avoiding or helping you forget unpleasant or boring things.” In other words, a lot of our routine activities could be considered forms of escape,

“The psychological reward from escapism is reduced self-awareness, less rumination, and a relief from one’s most pressing, or stressing, thoughts and emotions,”

said Stenseng.

Escapism can either restore perspective or serve as a distraction from problems that must be addressed.

Self-expansion refers to adaptive escapism, which seeks out positive experiences. Meanwhile, self-suppression refers to the avoidance of negative experiences through maladaptive escapism.

Self-expansion Vs Self-suppression Mindset

Running can be used for exploration or evasion. These two types of escapism stem from two distinct mindsets: promoting a positive mood or preventing a negative mood.

Escapist activities for self-expansion have more positive effects, but they also have more long-term benefits. Self-suppression, on the other hand, tends to suppress both positive and negative feelings and leads to avoidance.

To investigate the phenomenon, the team recruited 227 recreational runners, half of whom were men and half of whom were women, with widely disparate running habits. They were asked to complete questionnaires that looked into three different aspects of escapism and exercise dependence: an escapism scale that measured preference for self-expansion or self-suppression, an exercise dependence scale, and a satisfaction with life scale that assessed the participants’ subjective well-being.

Little Overlap

The researchers discovered that there was very little overlap between runners who preferred self-expansion modes of escapism and runners who preferred self-suppression modes of escapism. Self-expansion was associated with increased well-being, whereas self-suppression was associated with decreased well-being.

Exercise dependence was associated with both self-expansion and self-suppression, but the latter was a much stronger association.

Age, gender, or the quantity of time spent running were not associated with either escapism mode, but both had an impact on the connection between well-being and exercise dependence. A preference for self-expansion would still be associated with a more optimistic perception of one’s own well-being whether or not a person met the criteria for exercise dependence.

Further Exercise Dependence Research

Exercise dependence appears to be both a cause and an effect of perceived lower well-being; the dependency may be fueled by lower well-being as well as promoting it, despite the fact that it undermines the potential benefits of exercise for improving well-being.

Experiencing positive self-expansion may also be a psychological factor that promotes exercise addiction.

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

said Stenseng.

There are several limitations to the study. First, it is possible that the convenience sample recruited via multiple digital channels is not representative of recreational runners in general. Nonetheless, based on the descriptive sample statistics, it is possible to conclude that very few participants were competitive runners and that the gender distribution was relatively even.

It’s important to recognize that everyone has a different motivation for running and may find different aspects of it to be stress-reducing. Running, for instance, can be a form of mindfulness that enables people to be in the present moment and let go of unnecessary thoughts, which can lower stress and enhance general well-being.

Second, because escapism in running is a relatively unexplored theme, only one aspect was measured. A multi-scale approach to the phenomenon would have strengthened the validity of the results.

Third, the study’s cross-sectional design means there can be no conclusions about the causal relationships between escapism, exercise dependence, and well-being. Hopefully, this will be covered in more detail in studies with longitudinal studies in the future.

  1. Stenseng F, Steinsholt IB, Hygen BW and Kraft P (2023) Running to get “lost”? Two types of escapism in recreational running and their relations to exercise dependence and subjective well-being. Front. Psychol. 13:1035196. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1035196




Last Updated on January 30, 2023

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