Most of us haven’t used a hula hoop since we were children but it’s actually a cheap and effective core-blasting workout. Writer Josie England has been hula hooping her way through autumn and explains why she won’t be giving up any time soon.
When was the last time you used a hula hoop? If you’re anything like me, it won’t have been since primarily school. I used to be rubbish at it back then and the shame of not being able to keep the hoop around my waist put me off ever going back to it.
So, it came as a surprise to learn that plenty of adults are hula hooping and with great enthusiasm. One of those adults is my mum. She hula hooped her way through lockdown, hooping around the kitchen as a way of strengthening her core. Convinced that she’s stronger than ever, I wanted to see if I too could benefit from a bit of hooping.
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Far from festival fields, hoop dancing actually comes from Native American communities where it’s been used for generations as a form of storytelling. We have the ancient Greeks to thank for turning hula hooping into a means of physical exercise.
One person who believes those Greeks were onto something is Clara Popa, founder of Planet Hoop. She explains: “Hula hooping can improve mood, cardiovascular health, motor skills, balance and coordination – plus tone and strengthen.”
It’s also pretty inexpensive, with the initial hoop purchase being your only outlay. “It’s also family-friendly and low-impact, which makes it super accessible for people with a range of physical health issues,” Popa continues.
The benefits of hula hooping
But don’t just take her word for it. A 2020 study concluded that hula hooping regularly had a positive effect on participants’ core muscle activation, increased lumbar stability, improved the strength of the abs and back extensor and increased muscle mass.
One of my own goals is to improve and increase my core strength, so I’m keen to give hooping a go. Before doing so, I check in with physiotherapist Shanza Javid, who explains that using a hula hoop would definitely engage the core, adding that hooping would also increase my range of motion which, as someone who spends all day sitting at a desk, could only be a good thing. “You will get more range of movement because you are taking your body through those unusual rotational movements,” she says.
With Popa’s advice that “just 10 minutes a day can improve your core strength” fresh in my mind, I decide to set myself the challenge of hooping every day for 10 minutes.
The four-week hula hoop challenge
On the first day of my challenge, I begin bright and early, hooping before work. I set my timer for five minutes to practise in both directions.
Several tries, a continuously dropped hoop and a bruised-feeling hip later, the time is up. I switch to the other side, which is even worse. I decide to look up some tips to see if I can improve my technique.
My research informs me that bruised hips are a sign that I’m not doing it quite right – the hoop is falling off my waist and onto my hips when it should stay around my middle. With that in mind, my hips feel less painful over the next few days, which makes me think that perhaps I’m already seeing progress (despite how many times I drop the hoop).
On day four, I take my hoop along for a weekend away, and although it’s difficult to concentrate fully on the task in hand, I feel good getting it done nonetheless. After that weekend – which included lots of hiking, food and alcohol – the last thing I want to do is any exercise. But within a few minutes of hooping, I find my rhythm and find that doing it actually really picks me up. It turns out that you don’t need to run to get that endorphin rush.
The following week is incredibly busy, but each day I find time to hoop while dinner is cooking. Hooping is the most convenient exercise I’ve tried – you really can do it anytime, anywhere.
By the end of the week, though, I am beginning to struggle. My body feels tired and sluggish and I can feel a few aches in my sides. I’m still dropping the hoop a lot, and feel like I need some extra motivation. I book onto one of Popa’s Planet Hoop Zoom classes in the hope of learning some useful tips.
The class is great fun, and while a 45-minute class isn’t really what I wanted (I’m the kind of exerciser who likes to do little and often, rather than long and infrequent), I definitely intend to go again when I want to do a longer workout. Popa had us doing a few moves that I had no idea could be part of hula hooping, including hooping on one leg and squatting while hooping (I failed completely at these). I still only kept the hoop up for about four minutes at a time, but I do manage a few half turns. By the end, I’m incredibly proud – and sweaty.
The following day I feel like I’ve made a major breakthrough, managing to hula hoop for a few minutes on one side, but it doesn’t last – halfway through my challenge, I’m dropping it left right and centre. It’s only on day 20 that I manage a full five minutes on each side and that’s when I realised that I’ve broken through a wall. The sense of achievement is phenomenal.
By week four, I’m hooping every day: just before bed, while watching Bake Off, when I’m on hold to chat to my doctor. The more I do it, the more natural it feels – I even hoop while on a phone call with a friend!
I start to try a few of the tricks that Popa introduced me to at the beginning, and whether or not the hoop falls, I enjoy the extra challenge.
With three days left to go, I feel like I’ve nailed hula hooping. I can now hoop with my feet together, while moving around and – on my very last day – even hoop on one leg for a few seconds.
So, am I going to keep hooping? Definitely. Every day? Probably not. I’d definitely love to try another class now I feel more confident, and as Popa says, there’s any number of possibilities available to me now that I’ve mastered the basics: “There are many, many ways you can keep pushing yourself. For example, hula hooping on your hips and on your legs are also great for your core. I find that spinning the hoop on your lower body works out the lower abdomen. Lying down while you do foot hooping is also a brilliant abs exercise.”
Less pricey and bulky than an exercise bike, lower impact than going for a run, and less time consuming than heading to the gym, hula hooping is the perfect exercise for those short on time or space.
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Images: author’s own