Are You Exercising for Your Mental Health, or Just to Escape Your Problems?

Are You Exercising for Your Mental Health, or Just to Escape Your Problems?

Exercise can be an effective way of dealing with mental health issues. Either alongside or (for mild cases) in place of therapy and medication, going for a run or hitting the gym can help us to manage our moods and give us a healthy outlet for stress. But where is the line between healthy coping strategy and counterproductive avoidance?

A recent study explored this idea, and I noticed a lot of familiar thoughts popping up as I read the paper. The authors decided to look at running as escapism, which makes a lot of sense — going for a run can be a way of leaving your everyday problems behind for a while. The same could be said of playing video games, or reading fantasy novels, or even drowning your sorrows in alcohol.

The authors propose that there are two kinds of escapism: one in which you’re trying to experience new things or resolve problems in your life, and another in which you’re just avoiding or suppressing things you need to deal with. Or to put it another way: You’re just running away from your problems.

Is escapism always bad?

In anxiety, for example, avoidance is a huge pitfall. You procrastinate on a project because you’re afraid of how it will come out or how people will judge you. Or you don’t return that phone call because the very thought of it scares you, and it’s easier to do anything but make that phone call.

In the running study, the authors devised a survey that separated these two aspects of escapism: Are you running because you’re pursuing something positive (fun, enjoyment, seeking to actively resolve a mental health problem) or because you’re escaping something negative (temporarily suppressing thoughts about the future or ruminations about your past)?

I would have guessed that those ideas would be hard to tease apart, but the researchers found that there wasn’t much overlap between recreational runners who ran for “self-expansion” (as they named it) and those who ran for “self-suppression.” Those who went for self-suppression, the negative form of escapism, tended to score lower on measures of satisfaction with life — which could be a chicken-and-egg situation, of course — and were more likely to show signs of exercise addiction.

How much exercise is too much?

Exercise addiction is more often talked about in the context of eating disorders than avoidance. For example, the National Eating Disorders Association describes compulsive exercise as often being associated with purging after eating, or using it to earn permission to eat. Compulsive exercise can include exercise that is done at inappropriate times or places, or that interferes with daily life or with your health — for example, continuing to exercise in spite of an injury that needs rest.

In this context, exercise addiction often goes hand-in-hand with not eating enough, and can lead to further physical health complications, like overtraining, loss of bone density, female athlete triad, and relative energy deficiency in sport (sort of an undereating/overtraining combo).

But if you’re taking care of yourself physically, and your exercise isn’t too extreme, how bad is it really to use exercise to escape your problems? The current study doesn’t have an answer to that, and ultimately you should probably talk to a therapist to figure out if you have issues you need to resolve and what’s the healthiest way to do that.

Personally, I know I’m guilty of using exercise for both the positive and negative forms of escapism. Sometimes I’m in a bad mood, and I know that if I go for a walk or do 10 minutes’ worth of intervals on my spin bike, I’ll feel better and be able to get back to whatever I was doing. That’s the good kind. But I’ll also hop on the bike when I’ve been having a bad day and I just want to put the world on pause for a little while. Or when I have “do a workout” on my to-do list alongside four other things that have been hanging over my head. Oops, after the workout I guess I don’t have time for the others!

Ultimately I know that avoidance is something I need to, well, avoid. But I also feel like I’d rather have an hour-a-day cycling habit than, say, a drinking problem. If you find yourself thinking this way about your own exercise habits, it may be worth taking an honest look at why you’re working out so much.

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