an interview with

Jacqueline Stone

counsellor & therapist in sydney, australia

The emotional benefits of physical activity

Thoughts from a therapist

Q: What role can exercise and fitness training play when it comes mental health?

Jacqueline Stone: The benefits of physical fitness and exercising to mental wellbeing are irrefutable. What is surprising is how varied and multiple they are — they play different roles for different people.

Getting your heart rate up on a brief morning walk can assist your brain chemistry, countering or staving off depression. But it can also provide routine, help with self-esteem and build resilience. For example, many physical sensations that accompany running — shortness of breath, heart pounding— are also associated with anxiety. So if you get used to and build tolerance for running, or similar exercise, you can experience more resilience and less reactivity with symptoms of anxiety.

Many forms of exercise, like weight training, yoga and pilates, martial arts, require us to pay attention to our bodies, to be tuned in and aware of our posture, positioning, the tension or release of muscles, and of our course our breath. They are not only a healthy distraction from sources of stress in our lives, but they are mindful activities, assisting with concentration, self-awareness and again, resilience.

Q: Are there times when exercise and fitness are not advisable?

Jacqueline Stone: Obviously, it is important to exercise safely and within your limits. And there are times when it is best to keep it gentle — struggling with mental health is a strain and excessive physical exertion may compound that, adding to fatigue or exhaustion. 

And of course, caution is advisable if training is getting out of control or obsessive. Hours of hardcore exercise can become a form of numbing or escape or an expression of excessive self expectation or punishment.

Moderation is the way to go for most of us. Finding what you enjoy or what suits you, and finding how it works with and supports your daily life, is the goal.

Q: How important is fitness in your personal and professional life? 

Jacqueline Stone: I’m not alone in relying on my fitness training to help me create a better balance in my life. Our work lives and home lives can weigh us down with responsibility, and while they may bring satisfaction and even joy, they can also bring conflict and heartache. 

Going to training for an hour is an antidote of sorts. It can be restorative, and build resilience. A routine or regular place of exercise is a real support — something we do for ourselves, and potentially where we connect with others or with nature, or just our own body. 

My clients are likely very aware of how often I draw on fitness related metaphors and analogies in my therapy work. Like suggesting that you may not enjoy your therapy session, and you may even feel a bit tired and sore afterwards, but you’ll probably feel good for it and pleased you did it. And that a way of feeling or being in a relationship might be new to you and you might feel weak at it, but you can gently increase the load and you will strengthen those muscles. 

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"I’m not drinking so much, I’m on a bit of a health kick and the desire to go shopping isn’t there. I feel good about my life, and no longer feel that sense of numbness that used to be so familiar.

I know I’ll still have downs along with the ups, but I feel so much more confident that I can cope and take charge of my life. Thank you, Jacqui!"

– JS 30, Journalist, Eastern Suburbs