Running from Domestic Violence

by Rick Dougherty

It is hard to find someone on social media who is more annoying than a runner.  I can say this accurately because I spent a few years as this cliché.  Posting sweaty post-race photos; pictures of our Garmins; and reporting on a new PR (personal record) can be tedious for followers and friends.  There is a hilarious Comedy Central bit that talks about the “First Person to Run a Marathon Without Talking About It” (Comedy Central, 2015).  The video jokes about this phenomenon, but it is certainly real.  People like to brag about their runs.

The Runner’s High

For survivors of domestic violence, however, this annoying habit may be very cathartic.  A 2004 dissertation by Rebecca Yahnke-Concepcion for her Master’s at Oregon State University goes more in-depth into the effects that regular exercise has on the way female survivors of domestic violence feel about themselves.

Here is a direct quote from that paper:

“When investigating the participants’ self-views at the onset of this study they described themselves as worthless and identity-less as a result of their abusive relationships.  They felt undeserving of good things in their lives and believed that positive events could not happen for them.  They also had lost self-knowing; their likes and dislikes had to be relearned as that aspect of themselves had been taken away from them through the controlling actions of their partner.”

While nobody would suggest that every incessant running, hiking, or weight-lifting poster on your social media feed is a survivor of abuse, it may be easier to understand why it is so common.  When you have felt worthless for years, and all of the women in this study were coming out of long-term abusive relationships, seeing that you have talents can be euphoric.  When you spent so much time being told you are “less than,” it is therapeutic to brag on yourself.  

As someone who grew up in an abusive household, I was always told that I was lazy.  It was an attack that was leveled against me throughout my childhood, and into my teenage years.  Well, when I was running (and this is true) over eleven miles per-day in the first ten months of 2018, I was proving to myself that I wasn’t lazy.  I was looking good.  I was feeling good.  I was feeling good about myself for accomplishing a goal.

Directly from the paper:

“The sense of accomplishment was achieved by overcoming the desire to quit a difficult workout routine and through improvements to their physical stamina, abilities, and appearance.”

It is almost like, through exercise, the women were able to take the same traits that helped them survive the abuse, and use them to endure something difficult, yet ultimately fulfilling.  A survivor has been groomed to not quit.  During the abusive relationship, that ability was used to her detriment.  She endured the constant anxiety, depression, and control, and it only provided her with more-and-more negatives.  By transferring those same traits to a positive endeavor, the survivor is gaining a relaxed confidence that was removed by her abuser (Concepcion, 2004)

The Correlation Between Mental and Physical Health

Survivors aren’t alone in benefiting from regular exercise.  Dr. Michael Craig Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, notes that sometimes those benefits can be similar to those of certain medications.  He says, “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression.”

Exercise alone is not a complete plan to dealing with the process of moving past an abusive relationship or household; however, it can start to create a healthy routine for a survivor starting a over with a new life.  Incorporating these healthy behaviors into a healing plan can provide some needed structure, goals, confidence, and endorphins to help balance the financial, emotional, and legal hurdles said survivor will face.

Dr. Miller, who addresses depression specifically, suggests a gradual introduction to a workout plan.  “Start with five minutes a day of walking or any activity you enjoy. Soon, five minutes of activity will become 10, and 10 will become 15” (Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression, 2021)

Finding Your Motivation

Here at Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, we just finished our Angel Run in July.  The virtual run raised money for the BTSADV Angel Scholarship, which is intended to empower survivors and raise awareness of domestic violence.  This could potentially be a carrot to dangle in front of any of you considering starting a running plan, in particular.  Getting ready to be able to put in some miles in July of next year could provide some serious benefits to your physical and mental health.

To borrow from my personal experiences, I have also found that running, hiking, and other exercise communities tend to be very supportive.  Survivors have often been stripped of friends and family, and have a need for positive interpersonal relationships.  Early in the process, it can also be incredibly beneficial for these to be platonic.  Every community has bad apples, and survivors know better than anybody to be vigilant, but there could be a group of people out there to welcome you.  

There is also no need to be worried about your skill level.  The running community, more than most groups, is extremely supportive of newer athletes.  There are Facebook groups, for example, where you engage in mutual support with people you will never meet from all over the world.  In these groups, a twelve-minute-mile is celebrated with the same gusto as a six-minute-mile.  As a survivor, getting support without any expectation of anything in return can be an incredibly freeing feeling.  You could be that annoying runner I mentioned earlier.  It could be you touting your accomplishments to your friends, but old and new.  

Running is not even close to the only way to be active.  My mother, a survivor of abuse, goes on a long walk every day.  Yoga, weight lifting, hiking in nature, and dance classes are all good ways to keep the blood flowing.  Many survivors enjoy taking kickboxing, boxing, karate, or other more aggressive classes.  There can be something empowering in letting out that frustration in a healthy way, all while feeling an increased ability to defend yourself.  We all know that victims of violence often act out violently in their own lives.  Having a healthy outlet for that aggression is never a bad thing.  

When you have been living under someone’s control for so long, you are presented with a world of opportunities when you escape.  Exercise is just one of the hobbies that could turn into a passion.  If you ever saw that woman on her morning run, and thought that looked appealing to you, there is nothing stopping you now.  If you are still struggling in the aftermath of your abuse, and you just need an excuse to get out of bed at noon, maybe you can go on a walk around the block.  Mental and physical health can go hand-in-hand.  It can be hard to have one if you don’t have the other.


Comedy Central. (2015, October 22). First person to run a marathon without talking about it. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V68SMFrpFt8. 

Concepcion, R. (2004). The role exercise may play in how survivors of domestic violence feel and view themselves. : Oregon State University.

Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression. Harvard Health. (2021, February 2). Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression. 

We'd Love Your Feedback!

We’re always trying to improve our website and content. Your input will be really helpful as we review our website.