Going through the hoops

CIRCLE OF LIFE: Hula hooping is a fun way to get some exercise.
CIRCLE OF LIFE: Hula hooping is a fun way to get some exercise.

Exercise and I have a chequered past.

As a writer, who spends inordinately long amounts of time sitting on my butt/shovelling biscuits into my mouth, I'm well aware of the benefits of exercise. The trouble is that like most mortal human beings, there are usually at least 27 things I'd rather do than a bunch of crunches.

My mistrust of exercise can all be traced back to two distinct events in my early childhood.

The first was during the annual Jump Rope For Heart 'Skip-A-Thon'. We had to skip up and down the playground, a bit like a jump-rope relay. Being a competitive sort (before my sporting spirit was crushed mere seconds later), I went at it at full tilt. Unfortunately this caused both my woollen tights and my underwear to fall down around my ankles. I didn't finish the race.

The second event was a couple of years later, where - at a new school with a far more serious physical education program - I had to take part in a fitness test. We were instructed to briskly walk, then run, around the netball court, while the teacher made notes in her folder. I later snuck a look in the folder, and found that she had written: "Clemmy Bastow" - please don't laugh - "inappropriate arm swing". INAPPROPRIATE ARM SWING? What even is that?

To this day I am still haunted by both moments, which is why I tend to shy away from running, lest my arms swing inappropriately and my underwear fall down. Consequently my relationship with staying fit and active has been disordered to say the least.

Yes, it's been a rocky road to fitness, and one characterised by many detours into the gimmickiest of exercise routines: I've done the Jane Fonda Workout (without the Jane Fonda Heart Attack, thankfully), the 1980s pilates-predecessor, Callanetics, spun around on a ridiculous Frisbee-like contraption called the "La Twister" in the hope of whittling my waist (instead I only whittled my stomach contents to the point that they became mouth contents once more), and done Linda Hamilton's pre-Terminator 2 regime (minus the rifle stripping).

However, this tale of athletic woe has a happy ending, and I'm pleased - if slightly surprised - to say I found it in the middle of a hula hoop. Yes, just like the ones we used to throw around the gym at recess, only a little more fancily designed: this one can be broken down into pieces and travelled with, and has a shiny silver tape twisted around it that may or may not make it go faster.

I bought it in a moment of desperation, a few weeks ago, hopelessly out of shape after a year-long break from any form of regular exercise. The PR said hooping was fun, a claim I would ordinarily look askance at, but as I found myself wheezing at the top of the ten stairs (as in individual steps, not flights) to my bedroom, I decided to take their word for it this time.

It also came with the requisite celebrity converts: Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Olivia Wilde and Marisa Tomei are all dedicated hoopers, with Tomei recently enthusing to Shape magazine that "A friend took me to a class a few years ago, and I smiled the entire time. Once I started doing it regularly, I felt like hooping worked all the little muscles around my body - it shimmied everything into place!"

The inside word on hooping is good, too. Having been in the headlines since about 2008, the international "hooping" community is now thriving, leading to the American Council on Exercise doing an investigation into hooping's purported benefits: they found that hooping "exercisers can expect similar results from hooping as they'd get from boot-camp classes, step aerobics and cardio kickboxing", and that the activity burns upwards of 400 calories per hour.

So, with my hoop set up, and the DVD playing on my laptop, I stood in the living room and tried very hard not to feel like a performing seal as I whipped the hoop around me, "passed" it behind my back, and attempted to "corkscrew" the hoop from above my head to my waist. You can imagine my surprise, as someone who usually thinks "Well, that ought to do it" after three-and-a-half minutes on the treadmill, when I looked at the clock and found I'd been hooping for an hour.

Since then I've become a card-carrying hooping nut: my hips and knees no longer bruise, and I bought some nifty bright pink gloves (they're very Desperately Seeking Susan) to increase my grip on the hoop in above-the-head moves.

I hoop for at least 45 minutes every day. It's quite a change for someone who once went to the gym twice in the one year (while paying membership every other 363 days as well).

Plus, as the ACE sagely noted at the end of their study, "hooping is fun", which is a lot more than you can say for slogging it out on the treadmill, hoping your tights won't fall down.