Running to Escape Your Problems Can Send Mental Health in the Wrong Direction

by Liz Neporent
January 30, 2023 at 12:05 PM UTC

Some runners literally run away from their problems.

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  • A Frontiers in Psychology study found that running can have a positive or negative impact on mental health depending on the individual’s motivation.
  • There was little motivational overlap between runners who used running as a means of self-expansion (generally considered healthy) and those who used it as a form of self-suppression (considered maladaptive.)
  • A quarter of the runners showed signs of exercise dependence, which the researchers said suggests that addictive qualities of running may be a psychological drive.

A recent poster in a popular Reddit community was assured by users that he wasn’t breaking etiquette by using the treadmill in his New York City building’s gym for four hours a day, but they did express concern for his excessive level of exercise. 

“I’m sorry, I can’t get past the jogging 4 hours a day. Are you OK?” wrote one Redditor.

A new Frontiers in Psychology study suggests those concerns may be well-founded.

Running Into Trouble

For the study, Norwegian investigators took to social media to recruit ordinary recreational runners and ask them about their motivations for hitting the road on a regular basis. The 227 middle aged subjects, about evenly split between men and women, logged five hours of running a week on average. Participants were asked to complete a 14-item escapism survey that measured addiction to running and general life satisfaction, as well as levels of self-expansion or self-suppression. 

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Self-expansion is a type of escapism generally considered healthy. Hobbies like traveling, volunteering and learning a new language help broaden someone’s horizons and grow as a person. Self-suppression, on the other hand, is considered maladaptive, a way to avoid dealing with negative emotions. Risky behaviors like substance abuse, gambling addiction and self-harm fall into this category. 

According to the researchers, running can serve as a mental health boost or detriment, depending on an individual’s motivation. If trotting around the neighborhood a few hours a week leads to a greater sense of personal fulfillment, then great. Such motivation is on the right track, so to speak.  However, if someone is literally trying to run away from their problems, they might be setting themselves up for even bigger problems, the researchers cautioned. 

The Great Escape

There was very little overlap between runners who tended towards self-expansion versus self-suppression escapism, the research showed. But somewhat surprisingly, about a quarter of the runners across both categories showed signs of exercise dependence, though the latter group to a much greater degree. This suggests that addictive qualities of jogging may be baked into the psychological drive to work up a sweat, the researchers said.

“Even those addicted to an activity find pleasure in the engagement in the activity, to the sense that it becomes impossible to abstain from it, and the positive aspects of escapism may be one such addiction-promoting psychological motive,” the researchers wrote. 

The study does have some limitations, the authors advised. Since the sample size was relatively small it may not accurately represent the escapist inclinations of the nearly 50 million Americans who say they run on a regular basis. And only a few of the runners surveyed considered themselves competitive, a factor that would probably open up a whole different motivational can of worms, the authors suggested. 

“More studies using longitudinal research designs are necessary to unravel more of the motivational dynamics and outcomes in escapism,” said lead author Dr. Frode Stenseng of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in a news release. “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.”

As for the Redditor who devotes four hours a day to the treadmill?

In follow-up posts, he explained that he uses his time on the treadmill to listen to podcasts and music and to review his past as a heavy drinker. He wants to “have some time to myself and reflect on my life,” he wrote, adding that his exercise habit is “not a compulsion — it’s a hobby I very much enjoy.” 

Study aside, who’s to say otherwise?

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