Stresses are a part and parcel of everyday life. It’s pretty much impossible to go through a whole day without experiencing mundane hassles and strains that can weigh you down. To keep these stresses from doing that, we indulge in our various acts of escape. On one hand, some opt to catch a game or a movie or even have a smoke. On the other, some turn to the healthier choice of working out or going for a run. Healthy as sweating it out in the gym may seem, a new study warns it could turn into an unhealthy obsession.

According to researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), a steady subscription to cardio workouts as an escape from everyday stresses can result in a little thing called “exercise dependence”. 

Dependence generally refers to an over-indulgence in an activity to the point where it becomes an unhealthy obsession and like alcohol and illicit drug use, people can become dependent on physical exercise too. According to the study authors, exercise dependence is more common than people realize, particularly in recreational runners. 

Escapism involves engaging in an activity as a temporary escape from reality and remains one of the foremost methods of dealing with unpleasant situations, especially everyday stresses.

Escapism, when done positively—particularly when activities focused on are constructive—can yield good results. It can have a relaxing effect, providing all the motivation needed to tackle issues waiting in the real world. It can also be unhealthy, resulting in procrastination and sometimes, addiction.

With this study, researchers set out to understand how escapism as a coping mechanism can provide a better understanding of 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 who is the lead author of the study.

A total of 227 individuals participated in this study, 115 of whom were men and 112 were women. Each participant had different running habits and each filled out questionnaires designed to measure the extent of escapism, exercise dependence, and subjective well-being.

The escapism scale assessed preference for either self-expansion or self-suppression as a motivation for running while the exercise dependence scale measured a general addiction to running. Subjective well-being was assessed by measuring ‘satisfaction with life’.

Results revealed that several participants engaged in running as a means of seeking out positive experiences – self-expansion, while others indulged as means of avoiding negative experiences – self-suppression. Also, participants who indulged for self-expansion purposes had a more positive association with well-being unlike those who indulged for self-suppressive purposes who expressed lesser satisfaction with life.

The results also reflected an overlap between both self-expansion and self-dependence and exercise dependence as reasons for exercise dependency. Obvious positive gains from running can serve to promote indulgence in the act the same way lower well-being could.

The findings from the study should trigger a moment of self-reflection among runners. Understanding one’s motivation could be all that is needed to prompt a different form of escape.

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