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Running From Stress Can Lead To Exercise Dependence

Author:NeuroGym Team

What Is Exercise Dependence?

Why do you workout, or run, or do any exercise? Obviously, we need to do it, but what’s your motivation? It turns out, exercising for the wrong reasons has negative effects. If you’re running from stress or running from your problems it can lead to poor mental health and exercise dependence, which is in itself an addiction.

The Science Behind Exercise Addiction and Escapism

Studies into running suggest that running from stress or to avoid feeling negative emotions can do you harm psychologically. 

One study took into account numerous works on the idea of escapism and motivation in humans and concluded that there’s a link between exercise and escapism. This isn’t to say everybody who gets exercise is trying to hide from something! The study focuses more on how some people use exercise as a way of avoiding stress and negative emotions. This form of exercise as escapism leads to exercise dependence, and even exercise addiction, and can be damaging to one’s well-being. When talking about exercise dependence, the study goes on to look into how exercise has addictive traits. The aforementioned study involved 227 people who partook in running at different skill levels for recreational purposes. The results indicated that those who were motivated to run in order to suppress negative emotions were more dependent on exercise.

Another study looked at the idea of “self-suppression.” As a defense mechanism, self-suppression is when a person deals with difficult experiences or feelings by trying to push them away from their conscious thoughts, effectively ignoring them. The study in question shows that when people act on self-suppression, they generally have low self-esteem and suppress their emotions without expressing how they truly feel.

Exercise Dependence

Are you running because you want to or are you running because you have to? Do you feel like if you don’t go for a run you won’t be able to handle your stress? If so, you may be overly dependent on exercise. Exercise is good for you in the right amounts, but if you’re doing too much of it for the wrong reasons it can have negative effects that actually diminish the positive ones.

To be clear, being enthusiastic about exercise does not mean you are dependent. Exercise dependence is being addicted to exercise. It is a form of behavioral addiction and often involves comorbidities—the presence of more than one condition at the same time. This is to say people who are addicted to exercise often have other psychological, emotional, or mental health problems too.

For someone to be exercise dependent, they will exercise to a point of excess, even causing themselves injury or to become ill. The symptoms of this are similar to symptoms of other addictions and include:

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  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you cannot exercise. For example, feeling very anxious or uneasy or “getting the shakes” if you’re unable to exercise for a period of time.
  • A decrease in performance at work. This is largely due to being consumed by exercise.
  • Significant reductions of social activity that do not involve exercise. For example, not meeting with people unless it’s to go for a run or at the gym.
  • A decline in performance in other aspects of life. This could include losing interest in other hobbies or interpersonal relationships.
  • You’re usually overdoing it. This means you always do more exercise than you actually set out to do in the first place.
  • You lack control over when and how you exercise and can’t seem to stop yourself.

As we can see, being addicted to exercise is extremely disruptive to your life. If you’re exercising to the point where you’re getting hurt or making yourself sick, you really need to ease up! It’s common that exercise dependence is a symptom of another condition, which could be depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, or an insecurity about weight.

There’s an overall lack of research into exercise dependence, but what’s clear from research to date is that such dependence is more common in men. No matter your gender, though, like any form of addiction, exercise can really take over your life.

Countering an Addiction

It is possible to overcome an addiction. Often, the first step is to acknowledge that there’s a problem. If you think you’re addicted to exercise, here are some simple steps you can take:

  • Seek professional help. There are people trained to help others fight addiction and they can help you work on your problem. Going to therapy can help you find the reason behind your addiction, which means you can work on the cause directly.
  • Open yourself up to support. Whether it’s from trusted friends and family members, or a support group, let other people support you on your journey. It takes a lot of courage to share problems and be vulnerable, so this is a big step, but it’s very worthwhile. Remember, a problem shared is a problem halved.

  • One step at a time. You can’t make a year’s worth of progress in one day. Take everything day by day in your recovery. There will be setbacks, but you can always make a comeback from those. All you can do is go day by day.
  • Set yourself goals for the long-term, medium-term, and short-term. From where you would like to be this time next year to what you can do today. Even achieving small goals is progress.
  • Show self-compassion. Recovery is difficult, so forgive yourself for your mistakes. Self-compassion is strength; give yourself credit for the progress you make.

Recovery is  a long road but it’s worthwhile, so make a start.

Avoiding Escapism

Earlier, we spoke about self-suppression. The inverse of this is self-expansion. Rather than being a defense mechanism of avoidance, self-expansion is a growth process through which people develop new parts of themselves as a person, essentially expanding their world. Research into this has shown that when people undertake exercise for self-improvement it has many positive effects, such as increasing motivation and healthier thinking patterns. The takeaway from this research is  that while exercise based on self-suppression (running from something) has negative effects, exercise based on self-expansion shows a stark contrast! If you’re exercising in the name of improving yourself, it’s a whole lot better than doing it to try to avoid something (although, if you’re out for a run, do try to avoid the messes dogs leave on the sidewalk). While running from problems is a bad idea, running does have its benefits.

Do it for the right reasons! Exercise makes us feel better, so don’t do it to avoid being sad, do it to feel good! Do it to stay healthy and socialize! It doesn’t have to take over your life or be a form of escapism, it can just be something you do out of enjoyment.

Benefits of Positive Exercise

Exercise Dependence

We’ve looked at how being overly reliant on exercise is bad, but when you exercise the right way for the right reasons, it will do you a world of good! There are many benefits of exercise, both immediate and in the long run. Here are just a few of them:

  • Exercising releases dopamine, which is the happiness hormone made in the brain. Do plenty of moving to get yourself in a good mood!
  • Weight-bearing exercise, including walking, is great for bone density.
  • Exercise strengthens your muscles and makes you physically fitter.
  • The brain gets healthier when we exercise.
  • Exercising regularly helps you manage your weight and stay healthy.
  • Your risk of many diseases is reduced when you exercise.

As we can see from the studies mentioned earlier, exercising for the right reasons boosts your mental health. So make sure you get enough exercise each day!

Do It Right!

If you’re going to start exercising more frequently, it’s important you get the basics right. You need to make sure you prepare, use the right technique, and allow yourself to recover.

Preparation involves eating healthy and being well rested, as well as stretching properly in advance. Make sure you have eaten carbs for energy the night before. During your exercise, it’s important you get your form right. Correct form and technique is particularly important in weightlifting so that you can avoid injury.

While many will jump into an exercise regimen and go for it at a high intensity, this can lead to burnout. Why? Because so many people miss out on correct recovery. For example, it’s important to take in protein after exercising so your muscles can rebuild. It’s also important that you take vitamin C and zinc to allow your body to clear out the waste made by the cells during exercise. One of the best things for recovery, though, is to make sure you rest and get enough sleep. You can’t do intense exercise every day as your body needs to recover, so make sure you take some breaks in your week.

In Summary

Exercise is good for you, that’s stating the obvious, but you have to ensure you’re doing it for the right reasons. If you’re exercising to suppress stress or bad emotions, it will have negative effects on your health, both physical and mental, and it could even lead to exercise dependence. Make sure you exercise the right way for the right reasons!

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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