In our pursuit of good emotional health, so we can actively serve Jesus for the long haul, we have given some thought in this series to the power of our self-talk and to balance in our lifestyle. In this sixth edition of the Well on the Way series, we will conclude our reflection on lifestyle factors, with some thoughts on the vital role of physical exercise and recreational creativity, i.e. a hobby.

Wellbeing has been a popular research topic over the last 25 years since the Positive Psychology movement shifted the focus of psychological research away from pathology and what makes us unwell, to resilience, coping and wellness. With our national mental health budget ever ballooning, governments have been looking at efficient ways to deliver effective mental health resources to the community[1], and the first of these in Australia has come out of the West.

Prof Rob Donovan is Adjunct Professor of Human Sciences at the University of Western Australia and is the founder of the “Act-Belong-Commit” campaign[2], WA’s longest-running mental health promotion, encouraging everyone to keep active, connect with others and do something meaningful for wellbeing. Beginning in 2002, this is a world-first mental health promotion campaign to encourage people to increase their participation in 15 protective behaviours to increase social connectedness, engage in physical activity (especially outdoors in nature) and give meaning to life. Research[3] indicates that they are on the right track! And our instincts are accurate – keeping physically fit, having meaningful activity and being socially connected (more on that next edition!) are all really important for us.

Physical exercise is as good as, or better than, anti-depressant medication in relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety.

As Christians, we have the bonus of our church involvement – a ready-made community that so much of our wider society craves for those social connections.

But exercise and satisfying leisure activities are things we need to choose!

Mental health research consistently supports physical exercise as being as good as, or better than, anti-depressant medication in relieving symptoms of depression and anxiety[4]. Adults, aged 18-64 years, are advised to be getting at least 2.5-5 hours per week of moderately intense exercise[5]. So how are you doing on the exercise front?

And how about a hobby? In a recent interview on the Radio National Life Matters program (11 September 2023), Donovan said an effective hobby has to be “sufficiently challenging and adequately rewarding”, so that we are learning, as well as making small achievements. Whether we collect, make, perform, research, read, grow, compete, write, invent, paint, dance … the list is endless, but the purpose is the same: to give us reliable and stress-relieving pleasure. For Christians, a satisfying hobby is an excellent counterbalance to the demands of life and ministry.

A satisfying, mentally-absorbing hobby will do a lot of this emotional work for us!

A satisfying hobby helps us do Sabbath more effectively. We don’t have to look very far in our Bibles (Genesis 2:2) to see God resting on the seventh day from his work of creating. One day in seven. One day away from all the usual demands of our paid or unpaid “work”; one day to refill the tank, to rest in who God is, to be refreshed. A satisfying, mentally-absorbing hobby will do a lot of this emotional work for us!

Seeing something growing; working towards completing a project; finding joy in creativity. Edith Schaeffer (co-founder of L’Abri) says that “Christians are supposed to be conscious of being created in the image of God, and should recognise the importance of living artistically, aesthetically and creatively, as creative creatures of the Creator!”[1]

As retirement approaches, the importance of having meaningful non-work activity takes on a whole new dimension. A wise friend of ours suggests that to retire well, we each need two indoor activities and two outdoor activities.

So, here is our core idea and practical tip:

Core idea 6: Regular exercise and creativity are good for our emotional health!

So, I guess, the upshot is “make time for it!” Give yourself permission to enjoy that morning walk or run regularly, or sign up to a class or gym, or join that team. Put your trainers and shorts beside your bed so that you roll out of bed and into them! Or plan to walk regularly with a friend. The more we can build it into our autopilot normal routine, the less chance there is of backing out and the less we have to think/decide about doing it. And the same with a hobby. Give yourself permission to go there!

Practical tip 6: Learn PMR (progressive muscular relaxation)

Progressive muscular relaxation is a fairly simple combination of slow, deep breathing with the release of muscle tension, often called “The Psychologist’s Panadol”! It is a practical tool, alongside exercise and a hobby, for winding myself down and helping me relax deeply. You can learn this on a number of websites or apps, including on my website, where there are two relaxation recordings freely available[2].

I find PMR is an excellent entry into prayer, it is crucial for managing sleep disturbances and is an effective stress management technique that is free and readily available day and night!

Exercise, creativity and deep relaxation just aren’t optional for our emotional health. They can seem like an indulgence, but they’re not. They feel good because that is how God intended it.

Sue Bartho is a clinical psychologist who runs Well on the Way Psychology in Sydney. To read more articles in this series, click here.

[1] Barry MM. Implementing Community-Based Mental Health Promotion Strategies. Implementing Mental Health Promotion: Springer; 2019. p. 195-229.
[2] mental-health-wellbeing-explainer.pdf (
[3] Heinsch M, Wells H, Sampson D, Wootten A, Cupples M, Sutton C et al “Protective mental and psychological well-being in Australian adults: A Review “.  Mental Health Prevention 2020; 200192
[4] March 2023
[5] Physical activity and exercise guidelines for all Australians | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care
[6] Schaeffer  E. “Hidden Art”  Tyndale House; 1972

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