In the 1950s, an Australian company revived a long-lost product — a thin hoop used for dancing, spinning, and twirling — and marketed it as exercise equipment. Two California toy executives found out about the product and thought it had a wider potential market. They started to manufacture these exercise hoops in the United States and aggressively marketed them, including some grassroots campaigns: they gave out a lot of freebies at various playgrounds, and showed kids throughout the region how to swivel one’s hips to keep the hoop from falling on the ground. By July of 1958, the new toy — soon after called a hula hoop — had taken the United States by storm. The craze was so widespread that Wham-O, the company that the two men founded, claimed to sell 25 million hula hoops over the next four months alone.
The hula hooping fad died out a few years later, in the U.S. at least. But its popularity there led to increased awareness around the globe. In February, 1992, for example, China saw its own surge of hula hooping, which the government — one typically not fond of free expression — seemed to embrace. The Australians were right: in addition to being fun and funny, hula hooping, it turns out, is probably a good way to get exercise. The state-run Chinese media ran article after article about hula hooping, as Chinese citizens throughout the country were encouraged to rotate their hips and keep their hoops twisting.
For a few weeks, at least.
On February 26, 1992, a Chinese news agency ran a story about a Beijing man named Xu Denghai. Xu, like many other Chinese, had taken fondly to the hooping craze. But Xu had hooped one hip-toss too far. The news reported that Xu had to be hospitalized.
He had hooped so much that he had, somehow, twisted his intestines.
While that sounds like a storyline from a “News of the Weird” type of publication, though, this wasn’t a laughing matter in China. The story came from the China Sports News, a state-run publication, which noted that Xu wasn’t the only one to suffer from what others called “hula hoop intestine.” Xu was, reportedly, the third Chinese citizen to suffer the ailment, and officials were taking it seriously. As the Associated Press reported a week or so later, the government underwent a media blitz of sorts. A Beijing doctor from the China Sports News article (per the AP), “warned that the gyrating motion of twirling a hula hoop around the body is a strenuous activity,” and “urged people to limit the time they use the novelty rings.” The AP further reported that the Beijing Evening News advised hula hoopers to “warm up properly and refrain from playing with hula hoops immediately after eating to avoid stomach, intestinal and back injuries.” And, the day the AP report ran, a media outlet called “China Disaster Reduction Press” covered the story as well, with “two front-page articles on the history of hula hoops, health warnings and concerns about possible environmental problems if the plastic rings are discarded after the fad wanes.”
So, is hula hooping dangerous? Maybe, but probably not. It’s very hard to take Chinese media at its word here, especially due to the fact that it’s state-run and highly controlled. (Plus: there’s a “China Disaster Reduction Press?” And someone there thought hula hooping deserved two — two! — front page articles?) One’s skepticism can be forgiven. If you look through peer-reviewed medical journals, you won’t find any examples of “hula hoop intestine,” so that’s good. Despite what the Chinese media reported, it’s very, very unlikely that you’ll injure your intestine by hooping too much.
But don’t go too crazy — because for your kidneys, there may be evidence of danger. In 2007, one peer-reviewed journal reported on a perirenal hematoma — a rupture and hemorrhaging in the kidney area — apparently caused by excessive hula hooping.
From the Archives: The Kingdom of Little People: Something else from China.
Related: Kindergarten, but only the really fun parts. $3,000 or so.