Your Hooping High is Neuroscience!
by Mandi Smith
Because you are a savvy hooper, you already know that hooping is more than just good for you — it’s a jar of awesome sauce to be savored and licked clean. Hooping can strengthen your core, boost your immune system and even make you smarter! While others can achieve many of these same benefits from traditional exercise, as hoopers we know that there is just something extra special about hooping. Well, guess what? It seems that neuroscience agrees.
While hooping isn’t the most studied phenomenon in the realm of rigorous scientific research (consider this a shout out to all of my fellow hoopers in academia looking for their next research study project), dancing is the new darling of neuroscience. Meriam Webster defines it as “a series of rhythmic and patterned bodily movements usually performed to music”. Google offers sway, swirl, twirl, and even trip as synonyms. For many hoopers the terms hooping and hoop dance are interchangeable. I sway, swirl, twirl, and even trip when I hoop, and you probably do too — minus the tripping of course. Even those waist hooping for fitness often incorporate dance elements while shaking their bums.
So why does hooping come with an extra scoop of brainy benefits versus running on a treadmill? Why does hooping get us high, literally? First, here is a little background info on how the brain benefits from traditional movement and exercise. When we exercise the sensory motor network in our brain becomes active. Our brains also increase production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Dopamine is connected to the reward center and offers you that high that just makes you want to do something again and again. Got a chocolate addiction? You can blame dopamine for that (well, at least partially). Nearly every illegal drug increases dopamine, which is why you can become psychologically dependent on something even if it isn’t chemically addictive.
Meanwhile, serotonin is connected to your level of anxiety and it’s believed that a lack of it, along with norepinephrine, is a primary cause of Major Depressive Disorder. Serotonin, basically, helps regulate your mood. Several anti-depressant drugs, and even cocaine, work by increasing the brain’s serotonin levels. In addition to being connected to your mood, serotonin is also a factor in regulating your appetite and sleep. Norepinephrine is connected to a person’s state of alertness and concentration and it is similar to adrenaline. In the same way you can get an adrenaline rush, you can also get a norepinephrine rush.
Regular moderate exercise increases these good-for-you chemicals, as well as others like endorphins, a type of neuropeptide that functions as your body’s natural pain reliever. Moderate exercise also increases the production of neurotrophic factors that are connected with the growth and maintenance of neurons, those brains cells that are crucial for our learning and memory. The more you move, the better you learn, even if you aren’t actively engaged in learning.
So why is spending time inside our plastic circles so different? Because when you hoop dance, you do more than just move your body. You think, plan, respond, and express yourself. Not only is your sensory motor network active, but your pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain in charge of planning, is also engaged, as is the parietal lobe, an area of the brain connected to orientation and spatial perception.
Hooping requires motor control, working memory, and rapid decision making. When you plan and execute the perfect escalator move, you get an extra boost of dopamine as a reward. Heck, you get an extra boost of dopamine by just planning and anticipating the next move, even if it isn’t executed perfectly — a fact for which I am profoundly grateful. Experimenting with new moves and combinations of moves can also result in new synaptic connections, a vital part of learning and memory formation.
Movement and dancing primes your brain with the appropriate neurochemical cocktail. Larger doses of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphins are released. As is anandamide, which helps boost lateral thinking and a person’s mood. The name “anandamide” comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “joy, bliss, and delight” so you know its gotta be good stuff! But all of this isn’t the only thing contributing to the hooper’s high.
Our pre-frontal cortex becomes temporarily disengaged, which in this case can be a good thing. Not only is our pre-frontal cortex the area of the brain in charge of planning, but it’s also home to our inner critic. During that sometimes elusive state of flow our doubts and insecurities are silenced, so we are better able to enjoy the highs associated with hooping. We can lose both our sense of self-consciousness and our sense of self and really become one with the hoop. And then there you are, left with a perma-grin on your face.
What’s so special about hooping? To put it simply, hooping engages—and disengages—our minds in addition to engaging our bodies. We get benefits associated with each element of hooping, physical movement and dancing. But I suspect that we get even more than that.
Neuroscience has only recently become enamored with dancing and is still learning a great deal about the neurochemistry and the cerebral processes associate with it. When it’s all said and done, I would not be surprised if hooping is one of those amazing things in life where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One plus one plus doesn’t always equal two. Sometimes new additions can result in more fun than what should be mathematically possible. I suspect that neuroscientists will discover that hooping’s incredible combination of physical movement and creative expression offer an immeasurable amount of benefits — something we hoopers already are well aware of.
Mandi Smith uses hooping to escape from her crazy academic life. By day she is an academic librarian for a small regional university, but in the evening she is a hooper who is loving her hooping journey. She lives in southwest Oklahoma with her husband, three cats, over a dozen hoops, and several hundred stray books.