If you haven’t seen a Hula Hoop since you were a kid, it’s time to take another look. No longer just toys, hoops of all kinds are now popular workout tools. But is hooping really good exercise? “We don’t have a lot of evidence about it, but it appears that it has the potential for the same types of overall exercise benefits as if you were jogging or cycling,” says James W. Hicks, a cardiopulmonary physiologist at the University California–Irvine.
What Is a Hula Hoop?
An exercise hoop is a ring of lightweight material that you spin around your middle or around other body parts like your arms, knees or ankles. You keep the hoop in motion by vigorously rocking (not swiveling) your abdomen or limbs back and forth, and the laws of physics — centripetal force, speed, acceleration and gravity, for example — do the rest.
Exercise hoops have been around for hundreds (if not thousands) of years and achieved worldwide fame in 1958. That’s when Wham-O invented a hollow, plastic, lightweight hoop (patented as the Hula Hoop), which caught on as a fad. Wham-O continues to make and sell its Hula Hoop today, with company officials noting that the hoops are available globally at every level of retail and wholesale distribution.
Since the Hula Hoop first made a splash, other companies have gone on to produce hoops as toys or exercise gear. But note that only Wham-O’s hoop is officially a Hula Hoop (the company heavily policies and protects its trademark), though people often refer to all exercise hoops as “hula hoops.”
The Hooping Trend
The popularity of exercise hoops has waxed and waned. They were red-hot in the 1950s and 60s, then settled into a steady hum of usage.
In 2020, pandemic isolation brought hoops roaring back to stardom. Exercise enthusiasts (stuck at home) started looking for ways to jazz up their workouts and turned to hoops. They posted their own hooping videos on social media, garnering millions of views.
What’s the appeal? “It’s fun. And as much as we may try to tell ourselves otherwise, not all exercising is fun. Also, this is a workout that is inexpensive and can be done from the comfort of home, where you can provide your own soundtrack to your workout,” says Kristin Weitzel, a certified fitness trainer in Los Angeles.
Keeping an exercise hoop spinning for any length of time requires you to activate lots of muscle groups. To do it: “It takes all of the core muscles (such as the rectus abdominis and transverse abdominis) and the muscles in your buttocks (the gluteal muscles), upper legs (the quadriceps and hamstrings) and calves. That’s the same amount of muscles you activate with walking, jogging or cycling,” Hicks says.
Working core and leg muscles contributes to improved muscle strength, coordination and balance.
Spin the hoop on your arm, and you’ll use even more muscles — the ones in your shoulders, chest and back.
Some experts suggest that hooping might also help an aching back. “It can be a great rehab exercise to get you out of pain. It’s a core exercise with a good bit of mobility training thrown in, which is exactly what some types of back pain sufferers need to get better,” says Alex Tauberg, a chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist in Pittsburgh.
Hooping and Aerobic Benefits
After a few minutes of steady hooping, you’ll get your heart and lungs pumping, making the activity an aerobic workout. “When you activate a sufficient mass of muscles, you drive up metabolism and get the exercise response of increased oxygen consumption and heart rate and the overall benefits of aerobic exercise,” Hicks explains.
To reap those benefits, Hicks says it takes 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity per day, five days per week.
Recent evidence suggests some hooping benefits may even show up with shorter workouts. A small, randomized study in 2019 found that people who hooped for about 13 minutes per day, for six weeks, lost more fat and inches on their waist, improved abdominal muscle mass and lowered more “bad” LDL cholesterol levels than people who walked every day for six weeks.
Because a hoop workout involves vigorous exercise, it does have some risks to consider.
— Hooping around your middle may be too strenuous for people who have hip or low-back arthritis.
— Hooping may increase fall risk if you have balance problems.
— Hooping lacks a weight-lifting element. “While you can accomplish a great deal with a hoop, you will be lacking in resistance-based training like traditional weight lifting — think bicep curls or deadlifts,” says Carrie Hall, a certified personal trainer in Phoenix.
— Hooping may be easy to overdo. “It’s important to start out gradually. Doing too much hooping too soon will likely lead to an overuse injury. For this reason, people should add it in to their fitness routines and gradually build up tolerance to it,” suggests Jasmine Marcus, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist in Ithaca, New York.
— Some people report abdominal bruising after using weighted hoops on the heavier side.
Make sure your doctor clears you to start hooping if you have an underlying condition. Then, get a hoop; costs range from a few dollars to about $60, depending on the hoop type.
You can choose from lightweight plastic hoops or weighted hoops. “Weighted hoops are made of a much softer material, and they are usually thicker than a traditional Hula Hoop. Some hoops even come with a weighted sack attached to them by a rope,” Weitzel says. “Regardless of design, a weighted hoop generally ranges anywhere from 1 to 5 pounds. The heavier it is, the longer you can go and the easier it is, but it also takes longer to expend the same energy as a lighter weighted hoop.”
Which type of hoop should you start with? Weighted hoops are easier to use. “If you are new to hooping, purchase a weighted hoop that will help you get your form down and (develop) the ability to keep it going for a longer period of time,” suggests Darlene Bellarmino, a certified personal trainer in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
Size matters, too. “The hoop should stand around your waist or lower chest when it’s resting vertically on the ground. This is an easy way to make sure you can actually ‘hula’ the hoop at your height,” Weitzel says. “Note, however, that some of the weighted hoops that have the weighted sack attached by rope have a much smaller opening than regular hoops. These are usually adjustable with chain-links that you can add to fit your waist.”
Give It a Whirl
For workout ideas, check out hooping websites or free videos on YouTube. Try a beginner’s class and slowly increase how long you can keep the hoop going.
Once you have the hang of it, consider this hoop routine from Carrie Hall:
— Start with a warm-up around your trunk using intervals of 40 seconds on, 20 seconds off; repeat this three times.
— Put the hoop on your arm and do an arm circle for one minute; repeat on the other arm.
— Place the hoop around an ankle, skipping over the hoop as you swing the hoop with your ankle for one minute; repeat with the other leg.
— Finally, use the hoop as a jump rope for two minutes.
— Repeat the workout two to three times.
Don’t give up if it takes time to get to the point of hooping for long periods. “Just because it’s fun and looks easy when someone else does it, it doesn’t mean it is,” Bellarmino says. “As with anything, step away for a little bit, regroup and try it again. You will end up liking it while getting a great workout and having fun.”
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Update 05/02/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.