Running from your problems: Escaping stress can be addictive

The mental health benefits of running are undeniable.

The mental health benefits of running are undeniable. Image: Getty, TND

Lacing up the sneakers and hitting the pavement is a lifeline for many of us.

It’s a great way to stay fit and healthy, and experts told The New Daily that the mental health benefits of running are undeniable.

But a recent study from Frontiers in Psychology serves as a reminder that too much of a good thing can have negative consequences.

It found that running as an escape from daily stresses can lead to exercise dependence, a form of addiction to physical activity that can lead to health problems.


Escapism can restore perspective or it can act as a distraction from problems that need to be tackled.

Dr Frode Stenseng, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and the lead author of the study, investigated whether escapism can help explain the relationship between running, wellbeing and exercise dependence.

“Escapism is often defined as an activity that helps you avoid unpleasant or boring things,” Dr Stenseng said.

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

The study recruited 227 recreational runners, men and women, with varying running practices.

Participants filled out questionnaires that investigated three aspects of escapism and exercise dependence, including an escapism scale, an exercise dependence scale, and a scale for satisfaction with life.

The results showed that there was minimal overlap between runners who favoured “self-expansion” (adaptive escapism) and those who preferred “self-suppression” (maladaptive escapism).

Why are you really running? Photo: Getty

Self-expansion was positively related to wellbeing, while self-suppression was negatively related to wellbeing and much more strongly linked to exercise dependence.

Neither escapism mode was linked to age, gender or amount of time spent running, but both affected the relationship between wellbeing and exercise dependence.

In short, it showed that people who run to escape and avoid negative things have a harder time with their health and happiness.

But people who run to have new experiences and enjoy themselves are generally happier and healthier.

“These findings may help individuals understand their own motivation and be used for therapeutic reasons for those struggling with maladaptive engagement in their activity,” Dr Stenseng said.

Exercise dependency

Sport and exercise psychologist Dr Clive Jones told TND that “exercise dependency” referred to biological, psychological and social influences that can dominate a person’s life to the detriment of other things.

“It becomes the primary, if not only way, to cope with stress and uncomfortable feelings,” Dr Jones said.

“More effort and time has to be spent exercising to get the desired effect of dealing with stress and uncomfortable feelings.

“When not exercising if sick, the person becomes more irritable, moody [and] distracted.

“Interpersonal conflict increases whereby the exercise addict’s goal to exercise and always think about exercise interferes with their interpersonal relationships at home and at work.”

Keep running

Dr Jones told TND that the goal when exercising should be to keep your commitment in check and not to have it define you.

“It is a part of what you choose to do in your life rather than it defining who you are,” he said.

“It’s about life balance. Life is about embracing an array of things we value and appreciate doing. Running and exercise should be just one of many things we embrace and enjoy doing. It’s then keeping it in balance.”

Dr Jones said regular exercise, including running, can improve mood, and treat anxiety and depression.

Aerobic exercise, such as running, has been found to lower anxiety and increase feelings of tranquillity, with similar effects to psychotherapy or drug therapy.

In addition to reducing anxiety and depression, running has been found to improve self-acceptance, positive feelings towards others, a sense of autonomy, personal fulfilment, and purpose in life.

Studies show that exercise intensity between 30 and 70 per cent of maximum heart rate results in the greatest reduction of anxiety and that a training program of at least nine weeks produces the largest antidepressant effects, Dr Jones said.

“Exercising three to five times a week has been shown to significantly reduce depression compared to once a week.”

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