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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dancing With Dopamine and Spinning to Serotonin

Dancing With Dopamine and Spinning to Serotonin

by columnist Lara Eastburn

The new hooper can’t bring themselves to put their hoop down. It can feel like falling in love for the first time all over again. For some, the euphoric feelings hooping provides will settle into a happy rhythm. Others discover that these feelings deepen intensely or gradually lessen over time. Every hooper is at least marginally aware of the uplifting effects hooping has on our moods. But perhaps fewer of us know why hooping makes us feel so good. And even fewer may understand how to keep those hooping-highs coming over the years. This week’s Hooposophy article offers 1) A layman’s guide to the science and sense behind what hooping does to and for your brain, and 2) Easy, practical tips for managing your mood from within the hoop.

The Science Behind the Practice

Many of us already know that our moods are produced by, and vacillate according to, a complex combination of neurochemicals in our brains. There are four big ones – for our purposes, we’ll call them the SEEDs – Serotonin, Epinephrine, Endorphins, and Dopamine. Each of these mood-determining neurochemicals comes into play when we exercise in any way at all. I’ll run through them quickly for the neuro-curious, but keep reading for my suspicions as to why hooping may deliver them in a near-perfect prescription!

Serotonin and Dopamine appear to be deeply connected. Serotonin provides feelings of satisfaction and comfort (after a good meal, a good workout, or time spent with good friends, for example). Dopamine is linked to the brain’s reward system. It tells you to do that feel-good thing again. These two will generally be produced together when you do something that feels awesome. They are also both decreased by chronic stress, anxiety, poor diet, substance abuse, or inactivity. Epinephrine manages your “flight-or-fight” response. Triggered during bursts of intense activity, it can be greatly depleted by our fast-paced, multi-tasking culture. But in healthy doses, it helps us keep going when we think we can’t. Endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer, are produced by regular, moderate activity, and are credited with the reduction of chronic physical pain when we are regularly active. They make us feel good by helping to heal our physical woes.

So, if all of these SEEDs for “feeling good” are produced when we are active and moving, does it matter what kind of movement we’re involved in? My research says it does! In order to mix the optimal (most balanced and longest lasting) neurochemical cocktail for happiness, the recipe seems to be: 30 minutes to an hour engaged in an activity of moderate intensity that you are likely to do often.

Now keep the science in mind while we throw in a dash or two of common sense and good-ol’ logic. Technically, if I walk on a treadmill at a good pace for 45 minutes most days of the week, I am fulfilling the neuro-requirements for a good mood. But if I take that 45 minute walk outside, or with a friend, I feel even better. And I don’t need a scientist to tell me that. So what gives? My guess … engaging with my surroundings and/or another human while getting my dopamine-serotonin fix on only amps up the feel-good efforts of my brain.

But wait, there’s more! Let’s say that to my 30-60 minutes of regular, moderate-intensity activity, I add my own deeply personal and unique creativity and expression, or play. If that’s true, then I’m either jogging while painting, writing music while doing jumping jacks, OR … baby, I’m dancing.

And let’s say I add to that neurochemical, engaged, and creative dancing frenzy … the most ancient, spiritual, and encompassing symbol of all time. Let’s imagine that I’m dancing inside, outside, within, without, and with … a circle. Aren’t I pouring the best of what my brain can chemically produce into a feedback loop that, across cultures and time, universally reflects unity, wholeness, and return to self? My magic 8 ball says “All signs point to YES!”

Getting the most out of your brain’s cocktail for happiness while hooping

So, if we can count hooping among the absolute best activities we can possibly do to maintain a stellar mood, then why do so many of us experience ups and downs with our hoops over the years? What can we do to keep the stream of hoopy feel-goodness coming strong and steady? The short answer is: keep doing it. And it may be the difference between folks who talk about their “hooping” and those who refer to their “practice.” If we listen to the wisest of our hooping elders, we learn that the biggest emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits to be gained from our dance come from making a commitment to show up and engage with it on a regular basis.

We all reach plateaus in hooping, right? Sometimes we feel we’ve learned all we can, and the magic seems to dwindle. Others get wrapped up in performing or teaching. And some just get frustrated with a movement or impatient with their progress. Sticking with it can sometimes just seem too hard or not worth it. For one reason or another, hoopers, like runners, inevitably hit a “wall.” But as runners can tell you, if you push through that wall, there’s a “high” like no other on the other side.

So what’s this hooper’s prescription for long-term hooping bliss? Develop a practice. Make a commitment to your hooping – whether it’s seven, 30 minute sessions a week or one – and show up for it. Every time. It doesn’t matter if you free-style, work on a routine, or spend the afternoon waist hooping. The science says that if you hoop consistently, you will consistently feel good.

In eight years, my own practice has gone from 4 hours a day to three sessions a week. My best hooping invariably comes (eventually) on the days when I really, really did not want to hoop, but did it anyway. What can you do when you’re sad, stressed, or lonely? Hoop, of course! Your brain doesn’t care so much if you nail that trick today. It just likes it when you hoop. And when you keep your promise to your practice … you remember that, oh yeah, you do, too.

Happy Hooping, family!