"If you haven't done this in a while, don't be scared," said instructor Angela Mahoney as I tentatively picked up a hula hoop and started swaying my hips to New Kids on the Block.
Scared? The hoop workout seemed a bit twee – I half expected tonight's 45-minute class, held at Toronto's Sugarfoot studio, to be packed with Zooey Deschanel-types in legwarmers and polka-dot leotards.
Instead, my seven fellow hoopers (not surprisingly, all women) were encased in no-nonsense black yoga pants. And despite the unabashed girliness of the gym – framed pin-up photos, fuchsia feature wall, row of gleaming silver dance poles – hula hoop fitness, a mix of cardio and abdominal exercises, is surprisingly hard-core.
Think twirling a hoop is like riding a bike? Not so much, judging from the number of times mine – a standard-issue plastic number – clattered to the floor during the warm-up round. (On the bright side, "you're basically doing a squat each time you pick it up," studio co-owner Lisa Mitchell told me later. "And everyone else is completely focused on not dropping it themselves.") But once Ms. Mahoney – a pert, professionally trained dancer who once performed back-up for Katy Perry – corrected my stance, I was twirling like, well, Zooey Deschanel (the queen of quirk can reportedly hoop for hours).
"A lot of people take the round-the world approach [swaying the hips in a circular motion] which is wrong," she says. "Instead, you should plant your dominant foot forward, then shift your weight back and forth to keep the hoop moving." If only I had known this in Grade 7.
Yes, the class, complete with a soundtrack of old-school dance hits, is a deliberate nostalgia grab, a new spin on same-old aerobics and core work. And it doesn't hurt that hoops – the accessory of choice for many of this year's Canada's Got Talent contestants – are having yet another moment, with communal "jams" being held in cities large (Toronto) and small (Red Deer).
But it's also a heck of a good workout – a 2010 study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise found that hooping's cardiovascular benefits and calorie burn were on par with that of kickboxing and boot camp.
After our initial round of twirling, we placed our hoops on the floor, first skipping around them and then jumping in and out. (Each sequence is repeated for the duration of one song, all of which seemed endless.) Sweaty and out of breath, we moved on to the next sequence, squatting and shuffling in and out of the hoop (still on the floor). Next up, there was a bit of cardiovascular relief in the form of core work: V-sits while lifting the hoop over our heads and then back over our feet, alternating with leg lifts.
"These are the worst," said Ms. Mahoney – no sugarcoating here – as she demonstrated the final sequence: a plank rotation (holding plank while shuffling your hands and feet around the hoop), followed by a quick jump in and out of the hoop. She wasn't exaggerating: After four dizzying sets, I could barely peel myself off the floor.
It's fair to say I have a new-found respect for the hoop. The class involved significantly more cardio than I had anticipated, and the novelty of the moves – not to mention the music – distracted me from the fact that I was also performing the most abominable of exercises: abdominal work.
Kristen Woods, a semi-regular attendee, seconded that notion. "You expect to be just swinging the hoop around your hips, but it's intense," she said. "I hate the gym and I'm not a dancer, but with this class you're having fun and you still get a workout."
For the next two days, my abs ached and I couldn't get the lyrics to (You Got It) The Right Stuff out of my head. Forget your reconceived notions about girly gyms: I've never had such a good time working my core.
Special to The Globe and Mail