Running to, or from? Why exercise isn’t therapy

Image: Cheam Peak Hike
Image: Cheam Peak Hike

Jen Miller recently wrote an inspiring post about running as therapy for the New York Times blog “Well.” After a painful breakup, Miller began to put her life back together not with therapy – as her mother suggested – but by signing up “for a 10-mile race instead.” She went on to train for longer distances and found that distance running helped her to feel better mentally and physically. She wasn’t running from her problems – a concern her mother expressed – but running to a different, better future.

The comments on her post are overwhelmingly positive. Readers really connect with her story and many share their own stories about how running and other physical activities helped them cope with difficult life situations. I connected with her story too. I skied myself through the end of a relationship many years ago. The intense exercise and time spent alone in the wintery wilderness was good for me and those around me. I suspect that the need to exercise outdoors is fundamental for our health and primordial in origin. As Sam B says, “We’re human animals and we need the outdoors, I think. It’s essential to our health and well being.” (Green exercise and the health benefits of the great outdoors) Michelle LG has also written about the deep comfort that exercising in nature can bring. (Forest Bathing)

The comfort we find in full-bodied physical movement itself is probably primordial as well. We all know that rocking calms babies. And maybe later-term fetuses as well: during the last trimester of pregnancy, my developing daughter fell asleep every time I got going on the elliptical machine. (At least I think that was what she was doing. The clincher for my theory was her startled return to movement when I fired up the blender for my post-workout smoothie. To this day, she leaves the kitchen when I take the blender out of the cupboard.) But whether or not we think the comforts of exercise are primordial, physical movement clearly helps us stay well physically and psychologically.

But is exercise “therapy”? Miller says that she “ran down one problem at a time.” And some of those commenting on her post suggest that exercise is as good as therapy for solving problems. “Observant” says: “If everyone were to walk the average 10 miles a day that most farmers do as they go about their work, we’d probably solve about 99 percent of the world’s problems, including the dreaded ADHD…”

Others are doubtful. “Victor” says: “Exercise is a terrific balm, but that’s all it is. What do you do when, eventually, your legs fail you and your mind is still broken?” And we might wonder why, if distance running really is equivalent to psychotherapy, that commenters like Sharon — “Ridiculous stress and personal chaos is why I run ultras! Too much is never enough!” – still have stress and chaos in their lives. If running helps us deal with our problems, then wouldn’t it help us create lives that are less stressful and chaotic?

Part of the problem may simply be terminological. When some people say that exercise is therapy, what they really mean is that it is therapeutic. And they are right. Exercise is therapeutic. It makes us feel better. It helps us solve problems. It strengthens our resilience and perseverance. It helps us become more mindful and peaceful.

But exercise – even in the great outdoors – is not equivalent to therapy in the psychotherapeutic sense. We generally cannot gain deep self-understanding from distance running in the way that we can from therapy. Therapy helps us get at the roots of our suffering, whereas running helps us cope with its branches. For deeper traumas, we must devote time and effort to therapy just as we must train for a marathon. It will be painful, but the gains in psychological well-being from therapy can be genuinely life-altering.

And this where I have concerns about how Miller’s admittedly inspiring and thoughtful perspective might be interpreted. While running is therapeutic and important for maintaining psychological well-being, it is not a substitute for a deeper examination of ourselves and our relationships with others. The advances in the field of psychology in recent decades are remarkable and to not make use of this field in the darkest moments of our lives is, to my mind at least, unfortunate. Therapy can mean the difference between a life of sadness and disconnection and one that is meaningful, peaceful and loving. It can save lives, metaphorically and literally. I would be concerned if someone used running in place of therapy to address a serious trauma because they thought it would be just as effective. Exercise is important to recovery, but it is not a substitute for social and psychological support.

And for anyone imagining some halcyon past of vigorous physical activity and happiness (as I sometimes do, for whatever deluded reasons), it is worth remembering all of the ancient traditions that address suffering. If exercise really did extinguish emotional suffering, Buddhist philosophy probably wouldn’t exist — word is Buddha was an accomplished athlete. But to address suffering through meditative practice (or philosophy, or prayer) takes effort and consistent practice. Psychological changes require focused attention over and above the time we spend exercising.

One last concern related to Miller’s story involves social stigmas about mental health. While we champion those who transform their problems into marathon-sized achievements, we sometimes stigmatize people in therapy. Given this, I worry that the promotion of exercise as therapy (rather than as therapeutic), is fueled in part by social prejudices about psychological support. Because the truth is that any one of us at any time might need psychological support and we shouldn’t have to feel ashamed about it. Bad things happen to all of us sooner or later, and therapy can be invaluable for making it through. Well, that and running.


8 thoughts on “Running to, or from? Why exercise isn’t therapy

  1. I’ve run a race, the RX run sponsored by a Mental Health I guess clinic. Their whole premise is that exercise is a part of a holistic approach to treating many mental health issues. So they actually see it as therapy, but not the only component to treatment. Just as pharmacologicals or the traditional patient on the couch are generally used together.

  2. I agree with your insights.
    I have a nice therapist to help me deal with some serious personal chAnges.
    Before that I tried to exercise them away. Exercise may help you temporarily forget your problems, but so does booze or food. For me, it became apparent both were ways to numb pain.

  3. I really like the distinction between things that are therapeutic and actual therapy. Great post. Thanks for writing it!

  4. Thank you for articulating this in an accessible way, while I garden and exercise to support my well being, I’ve never made substantive gains with my mental health challenges without therapy from a professional.

    I think there is a persistent stigma to accessing therapy and that this post helps name it and address it.

  5. I think Anne said it better: that exercise can become addictive like a (happy) drug. It can help you feel physically stronger, more physically able but it doesn’t necessarily help how to deal directly with long-term, toxic family/work relationships.

    Instead exercise can help us reduce the probability of engaging in further self-harming habits and helps re-establish physical equilibrium that our bodies may long for. A healed body complements a mind and heart that wishes to heal also.

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