Running - A 'Positive Addiction'?

If you’ve spent some time immersed in the society of runners, you’ve probably come across a few redemption narratives. Many people have reached a crisis point in their lives, laced up their running boots, and found their lives changing as a consequence. People struggling with obesity and substance abuse are particularly prominent within the world of ‘redemption-running’, and many will tell you that the act of running is a positive ‘replacement’ for their former addictions to food or/and substances. This has not failed to grasp the interest of the scientific community. With increasing numbers of men suffering from ‘Bigorexia’, which many link to an apparent ‘addiction’ to exercise, many researchers are intrigued by running’s apparent potential to save those with addiction issues. Can running really be ‘addictive’? And can an ‘addiction’ to running really ‘replace’ an addiction to less healthy things?

What Is Addiction?

To determine whether or not running is ‘addictive’, we first have to determine what an addiction actually is. And that’s no easy task. From a psychiatric point of view, an ‘addiction’ is any (ostensibly) voluntary behaviour, which takes over the life of the sufferer to the extent that their life is significantly altered by it (usually for the extreme worse). From a neurochemical point of view, addiction is a little more specific. A neurochemical addiction occurs when one uses a substance or behaviour to effectively hijack the brain’s pleasure and reward circuits, creating an artificial ‘high’ upon which the brain then comes to rely (inducing cravings in order to get what it wants). Often, neurochemical addiction causes psychiatric addiction, but this is not always the case. Any serious runner may well recognise the potential for both in running - people do get obsessed with it, and running does release chemicals which make you feel good. But is this effect really as powerful as some claim?

Exercise Addiction - An Uncertain Science

Most scientists agree that exercise has the potential to cause addiction. Exercise triggers the release of chemicals such as endorphins, adrenaline, and dopamine which could all, potentially, play a part in the neurochemical addiction process. However, many scientists think that, in order to consistently achieve the kind of levels needed to form an active and ongoing addiction, people would have to be more or less perpetually working out to a very high level. This is not impossible - and there are certainly some cases of people who work out to such excess that they get anxious when they cannot exercise, and begin to suffer badly as a result of their punishing exercise regimes. However, whether those described as ‘exercise addicts’ are actually ‘addicted’ or suffering from some other underlying psychological issue remains a matter for debate. Indeed, many with problems like substance abuse disorders and food addictions may exercise excessively in order to ‘offset’ their excesses. The anxieties inherent in (and, perhaps, triggering) these disorders may then result in a pathological ‘need’ to exercise as much as possible. So, while it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that one could get ‘addicted’ to exercise, whether or not it actually happens commonly is as yet undetermined. There are some scientists out there who believe that there’s a lot we don’t yet know about the way in which exercise changes the brain - and, in fairness, the experience of a lot of runners would appear to bear this out.

Positive Changes

What is certain is that running - when practised in a non-pathological way! - is very good for you. In particular, it benefits your heart, and that which benefits your heart directly benefits your brain by increasing its supply of valuable blood (and therefore oxygen and nutrients). The mood-boosting chemicals released during running may also help to quell dopamine cravings at least a little in addicts who take up running. More significant, however, may be the more ephemeral and personal effects of running. While we’re running, we have time to calmly meditate on our experiences. For many, their run is a valuable moment of quiet, serene reflection - useful for busting stress and for ‘getting your head together’. It also gets us out into the great outdoors, which has in itself been proven to have a host of mental health benefits. Then there’s the fact that taking up running means making a positive commitment towards your health. Not only this, but it allows you to set yourself goals, see yourself meet them, and realize the importance of your physical form. It brings pride, confidence, and a new respect for your body. This often translates into an overall resolve to improve your lifestyle, treat yourself with more kindness, and stop putting damaging things into your valuable body.