Too much of a good thing: When be­ing ac­tive be­comes a bur­den

Toronto res­i­dent Jenn Hicks was sneak­ing out at night to feed her con­stant crav­ing for ex­er­cise


Jenn Hicks was ly­ing to her hus­band.

It would hap­pen fairly of­ten: Hicks would wake up in the mid­dle of the night and tell Paul she couldn’t sleep, that she needed to read for awhile at an all-night cof­fee shop near the cou­ple’s Yonge St. and Lawrence Ave. home. Then she’d slip away into the night.

But Hicks wasn’t go­ing to a cof­fee shop or hav­ing an af­fair. In­stead, the Toronto speech-lan­guage pathol­o­gist was feed­ing her con­stant crav­ing for ex­er­cise.

Run­ning. Cy­cling. Weightlift­ing. Any­thing, Hicks says, to sat­isfy her grow­ing ad­dic­tion.

“I would do it in the mid­dle of the night,” says Hicks, now 42. “Def­i­nitely be­fore work, at lunch, af­ter work, and it would be the en­tire evening.”

Back in 2003, Hicks first de­vel­oped an ad­dic­tion to ex­er­cise — a com­pul­sion that, while not a for­mal clin­i­cal di­ag­no­sis, is def­i­nitely rec­og­nized by mem­bers of the med­i­cal com­mu­nity. It can hap­pen on its own, or along­side an eat­ing dis­or­der or men­tal ill­ness, ex­perts say.

For Hicks, there was no clear trig­ger. She was 30 at the time and had been work­ing in speech-lan­guage pathol­ogy for five years.

She had a sta­ble part­ner, a house, a great job and good friends. “It kind of came out of nowhere,” she says.

But she was deal­ing with anx­i­ety, she says, and be­gan ex­er­cis­ing more of­ten — which caused her to lose weight “mag­i­cally.”

“It was pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment that I should just con­tinue, un­til it got to the point where I wasn’t think­ing re­al­is­ti­cally,” Hicks says.

Over the next few years, Hicks joined nu­mer­ous sports teams and started dragonboat­ing. She’d tell Paul she was do­ing laun­dry in the base­ment — and would be do­ing ab ex­er­cises in­stead. If friends wanted to get to­gether, she’d in­sist on ex­er­cis­ing with them.

While push­ing her 5-foot-5 frame to its lim­its, Hicks also wasn’t eat­ing prop­erly — she’d been di­ag­nosed with anorexia in 2003 — and even­tu­ally dropped to less than 100 pounds.

“Even though I have two science de­grees, it didn’t seem to mat­ter to me that I knew what was go­ing on in­side my body,” she re­calls. “The sat­is­fac­tion of look­ing a cer­tain way and be­ing a cer­tain weight meant more to me.”

Other health ef­fects started to creep up, too. Hicks’s doc­tor sent her for echocar­dio­grams — sono­grams of her heart — be­cause it wasn’t func­tion­ing prop­erly. At the same time, she re­calls her elec­trolytes and liver en­zymes be­ing “out of whack.”

Within two years, Hicks was spi­ralling into de­pres­sion and call­ing in sick to work for a week at a time. That led to a turn­ing point: In 2005, she went on med­i­cal leave.

“That was dev­as­tat­ing,” she says. “Be­cause it felt like I was a fail­ure.”

Hicks re­solved to get bet­ter. She’d been see­ing her fam­ily doc­tor and a ther­a­pist the whole time — and at­tend­ing sup­port groups at Sheena’s Place, an eat­ing dis­or­ders cen­tre in Toronto — but says it was some­thing she had to over­come on her own.

So, at the end of the year, Hicks sold her car and trav­elled to In­dia. Paul came with her for four weeks, then she stayed for another month on her own — a much-needed es­cape.

When she re­turned to Toronto in early 2006, Hicks was fi­nally di­ag­nosed with bipo­lar dis­or­der, which ex­plained her many highs and lows. She also be­gan train­ing as a dance teacher in the “Nia” style, which fo­cuses on sens­ing and re­spect­ing your body.

At first, Hicks says it was a covert way for her to main­tain her ad­dic­tion in a seem­ingly healthy way.

“The uni­verse had some­thing else in store for me,” she adds. “I guess I had to prac­tise what I was preach­ing.”

Ten years later, Hicks is still a dance teacher on the Dan­forth, and leads a healthy life with­out her old “food rules” and con­stant ex­er­cis­ing.

Es­cap­ing ex­er­cise ad­dic­tion wasn’t easy, but Hicks has a new re­spect for her body.

“Hav­ing gone through it, I know that it wasn’t enough for my hus­band or my sis­ter or my friends to ex­press con­cern,” she says. “It ul­ti­mately had to come from me.”


Jenn Hicks, who now teaches Nia dance classes, once found her­self ad­dicted to ex­er­cise.

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