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.