by Jenny Hill
Did you know the hippocampus looks like a seahorse? Yep, that major component of our brain, with one located on each side, was even named after it – from the Greek hippos meaning “horse” and kampos meaning “sea monster”. Now imagine that seahorse with a little hoop around it. Adorable, right? There should be a t-shirt. But “Hooping is Good For Your Brain” is more than just a trite slogan. While our brains really benefit from hooping, the hippocampus just might love to hoop most of all. It is the part of our brain that plays an important role in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation.
When I first started hooping five years ago, there were a lot of moves my body seemed to refuse to understand. The link between what my brain was telling my hands to do in orbit (“Over hand grab with the right hand as you pass the hoop behind you”) and what my body did (underhand grab so the hoop flipped) felt at times like a canyon’s worth of distance. Like most hoopers, determined to get it, I persevered, then tried it in the other direction with success. The ability of the brain to rewire and remap itself through neuroplasticity is incredible. Sure, of course the body plays a pretty major role when it comes to hooping, but do not underestimate just how much your brain is involved. As we hoop, our bodies and brains are conspiring together to not only make it happen, but to make us smarter. Oooh, that sneaky seahorse hippocampus! Here’s how it happens:
Hooping actually boosts our memory and learning. Current brain research shows that movement is critical in our ability to learn. It boosts the chemicals that are good for focus, thinking, and memory. Those chemicals are noradrenaline, dopamine, and cortisol. While we grow neurons (electrically excitable brain cells that process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals) throughout our lifetime, movement is the absolute best thing there is for growing them. Yep, movement ends up actually increasing the amount of grey matter in our brain and those excitable brain cells are connected with memory, learning and mood.
Mixing that movement up actually helps them grow even more too. By adding to your bank of hoop moves, breaking a repetitive combination pattern and trying something else, playing with others, giving their hoops a spin, sharing yours, and taking a class with a hoop instructor you’ve never tried before, your brain will respond by seeking and making connections. Variety is critical, so if you’re tired of working on a series of hooping tricks, crank up the tunes and hoop dance instead. Add a hoop, or lose one. Do something different. Your brain may actually end up getting even more excited about it than you are.
Getting personally excited about our physical movement helps though too. It’s another reason why hooping is so wonderful. It’s interesting to note that if it isn’t enjoyable, like spending another hour stuck on a treadmill, or even if our hoop sessions start feeling like a forced march, we may actually be increasing something else – our levels of cortisol. And get this – increased cortisol can actually lead to weight gain. Wait, what? Hooping is supposed to make me fit and trim! Well, it can, but the brain needs to be in on it. It isn’t necessarily going to help make that happen if you aren’t enjoying yourself. Your brain knows that how you feel about exercise matters!
Did you know you can make significant changes in your brain with hooping too? That’s huge, right? While hooping requires us to focus, that focus helps us literally wire our brain. All brains change, every day. As we learn new hoop moves our brain rewires and remaps itself. The neuroplasticity is profound. The idea that I can increase my capacity for memory, sequencing, focus, and processing with a toy that I love to play with is really exciting to me.
But wait, there’s more! Hooping also releases endorphins. Think of it as your body and brain working together to create a pattern of joy. When you exercise, your body releases happy chemicals. These endorphins interact with the receptors in our brain to reduce our perception of pain, triggering a positive feeling in the body that is actually similar to that of morphine. It’s what accounts for that feeling known as a “Hooper’s High”, and it can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life. It’s the same thing that happens for runners, who often describe it as euphoric. Spending half an hour in the hoop can do wonders for our brain, which then does wonders for our mood and so much more.
Over time I’ve discovered just how great hooping has been for helping my brain rise to the occasion of learning through modalities that are outside of its comfort zone. I know I’m not alone in that either, it’s true for practically every single one of us. So while she may be hooping for fitness, or he might be hooping for art, if someone you know still isn’t getting why you love this plastic circle so much, simply tell them that you’re doing it for your brain. And if that’s not something they can really wrap their head around, all you’ll need to do is hand them a hoop.
Contributor Jenny Hill is a poet, arts educator, hoop instructor, performer, and encourager at Acts of Jennius. She is editor and book designer for Paper Kite Press, an independent press for poetry. For 38 years of her life, she lived within the safe confines of her head, and then the hoop found her. If you leave your backyard unattended, she might just start a Hoop(oetry) circus there. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA. She’s also on Facebook.