Addicted to working out? Using cardio to escape stress may lead to ‘exercise dependence’

TRONDHEIM, Norway — When life becomes too stressful and responsibilities feel more like anchors weighing us down, we all have our own way of unwinding. Some turn to alcohol, nicotine, or any number of other substances, while others work out their frustrations in the gym or on the treadmill. Exercise is clearly a healthier choice, but fascinating new findings out of Norway suggest fitness can turn into an addiction as well.

Scientists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) say that using running or cardio to escape everyday stresses can result in “exercise dependence” in certain people. Exercise dependence is a form of addiction to physical activity that can lead to additional health issues. Surprisingly, study authors even report that signs of exercise dependence are common among recreational runners.

Researchers set out to better understand the concept of escapism, and how it can help us grasp the relationship between running, well-being, and exercise dependence.

“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,” says NTNU’s Dr. Frode Stenseng, lead author of the study, in a media release.

“Escapism is often defined as ‘an activity, a form of entertainment, etc. that helps you avoid or forget unpleasant or boring things’. In other words, many of our everyday activities may be interpreted as escapism,” Dr. Stenseng continues. “The psychological reward from escapism is reduced self-awareness, less rumination, and a relief from one’s most pressing, or stressing, thoughts and emotions.”

Benefits of escapism depends on your mindset

Escapism is undeniably helpful at times, but it can become a double-edged sword. While escapism can certainly reduce stress and restore perspective, it can also serve as an unhealthy distraction from problems that need solving.

Escapism typically comes in two varieties. One is adaptive, seeking out positive experiences — called as self-expansion. On the other hand, maladaptive escapism, or avoiding negative experiences, is referred to as self-suppression.

“These two forms of escapism are stemming from two different mindsets, to promote a positive mood, or prevent a negative mood,” Dr. Stenseng explains.

Escapist activities in pursuit of self-expansion usually foster more positive effects and promote more long-term benefits. Self-suppression, conversely, tends to suppress positive feelings as well as negative ones, ultimately leading to avoidance.

A total of 227 recreational runners, half men and half women, with widely varying running habits, took part in this study. The runners completed questionnaires investigating three distinct aspects of escapism and exercise dependence:

  • An escapism scale measuring preference for self-expansion or self-suppression.
  • An exercise dependence scale.
  • A “satisfaction with life” scale intended to gauge subjective well-being.

The results reveal there was very little overlap between runners who favored self-expansion and runners who preferred self-suppression modes of escapism. While self-expansion did indeed have a positive association with well-being, self-suppression was negatively related to well-being. Also, despite both self-suppression and self-expansion showing links to exercise dependence, self-suppression had a much stronger connection.

Neither variety of escapism was associated with age, gender, or amount of time spent running, but both types did influence the relationship between well-being and exercise dependence. Even if an individual did not meet the criteria for exercise dependence, a preference for self-expansion still displayed a link to a generally more positive sense of their own well-being.

Exercise dependence makes it much less likely an individual will reap potential well-being gains from exercise, but it also appears that perceiving lower well-being may be both a cause and an outcome of exercise dependency. In other words, exercise dependency may be driven by lower well-being as well as promote it. Similarly, experiencing positive self-expansion may be a psychological motivator fostering exercise dependence.

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

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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