Keeping fit can be child's play if you take the roundabout way.
Beset by memories of poor childhood co-ordination and playground ignominy, I approached this year's latest fitness craze with a certain sense of gloom. But it is hard to stay gloomy when you're flinging a day-glo hoop around your waist and waggling your hips like Ricky Martin.
Hula hooping first rose to prominence in the 50s as a cheap, faddy phenomenon that somehow took hold of an entire planet's imagination. From housewives hooping at holiday camps to kids on the beach, even geishas in their kimonos, the hula hoop has proved its universality and its timelessness. Like the bicycle, it feels like one of those inventions that has just always been around.
It was immortalised in the 1994 Coen brothers' film, The Hudsucker Proxy, with the line: "The hula hoop! You know - for kids!" Except it isn't anymore. Those 50's housewives had the right idea: there's nothing like developing your core strength (that is, your abs and stomach muscles) for keeping you trim. And there's no better way to give them a rigorous going over than to stand and loop the loop with a hoop for half an hour. "The reason it's such a good tool for exercise is that core strength is key to your whole body," says Marawa Wamp, a circus-trained hooper whose help I have enlisted.
"You can work on your calf muscles and do lots of chin-ups and have strong arms, but if your core's not right then forget it," she says. "Then there's the theory that it's breaking up fat cells every time it runs over you - so it's a two-in-one: tightening up the core and keeping that area nice and firm."
Wamp has been hooping for 10 years and has the fluid-but-strong posture of a ballet dancer. Her shoulders are straight, she stands tall and she exudes sinuous strength. I want to be like her, I decide. I will slay all those memories of having a hoop flutter to the ground past my skinny pre-teen knees and I will master the hula hoop.
My first move is to Google for tips, of course, and in doing so I discover a whole hooping community, not to mention oodles of testimonials from women who claim it has changed their lives. People hoop at home or in the park, some dressed as fairies (not something I'm willing to try) or simply in their pyjamas. One woman, Jen Moore, claims to have lost 64kg just by using her hoop at home as she watched television; she's now a spindly spokeswoman for Hoopnotica, the company that helped her get fit.
It all serves to confirm my exercise-starved and indolent sofa dream of becoming incredibly thin by not doing very much.
Hoopnotica is one of many companies that have sprung up to teach the ways of hula to those looking to make their fitness regime slightly more fun. With its instructional workout DVD comes an adult-sized hoop that breaks apart and reassembles for ease of storage. It is much bigger than I remember; I feel like a dwarfed Saturn standing in the centre of it.
"Most people I talk to about hula hoops say 'oh, I used to be able to do it when I was a kid, but not any more'," Wamp says. "But of course you can! They haven't thought about the fact that when they were a child, they were probably half the height and a bit smaller, so you need a bigger hula hoop. You want one that comes up to your hip. For most people, they pick up one of these and pretty quickly they can do it." She pauses. "For some people it can take a little longer."
Before I meet Wamp, I have a go with my hoop at home in front of the the Hoopnotica DVD, which is presented by several gazelle-like winding creatures who promise that hooping will not only give me great abs but will also boost my confidence, sex drive and feelings of positivity. Having silently scoffed at this, I realise after a few minutes of gyrating in the way they tell me that I do feel slightly more confident. That's just what pelvis-thrusting can do for you, I suppose.
After a few false starts, I manage to keep the hoop up for more than three spins. Then six, then 12, then suddenly it just keeps going. I try hooping to the left and to the right; the DVD teaches me how to turn round in the hoop and to keep it spinning and how to walk around the room with it still whirring away. I am not very good at the last one, but there's time. I am thrilled, confident and filled with a boost in my feelings of positivity.
Terribly excited, I explain to Wamp when we meet that I've been doing the video and following the instructions and that, yes, I am now a hooper too. I can hoop for most of Madonna's new album, I tell her, although I'm not sure I'll bother listening to it all the way through again. But still.
"It's very difficult to engage your core," she smiles, ready to appraise my technique. "I thought I was doing it for a couple of years, even when I was performing, before I realised I wasn't actually using those muscles at all."
Oh. I have been doing it wrong, it turns out.
Lesson one of hula hoping: simply spinning the hoop on your waist is not good at all if you're rocking back and forth on your feet, even if you do it for days and weeks on end. You'll burn some calories, but you won't get those stomach muscles working. The technique that Wamp teaches me is rather different, standing with my feet parallel and shoulder-width apart, then flicking the hoop around my middle by pushing out with my stomach as it comes into contact with my belly button. It is much harder and I can't do it. After three revolutions (achieved only with the momentum of me hurling it around myself in the first place), it simply clatters down to the floor again. Oh well.
Hula hooping takes practice and patience, but once you've mastered it, it's a bit like riding a bike. It works best when you simply don't think about it at all, but just let your body get into a rhythm and rely on it to remember when to flick. I'm no pro, but the creaking of my abdomen the next morning is proof enough that just a few spins will awaken even the most neglected of cores.
After 26 years of searching and despairing, I think I've found my sport.
* For hula hoop classes in Auckland go to hiphoopfitness.co.nz
- INDEPENDENTBy Harriet Walker