When the woman who made me laugh for more than 30 years suddenly passed away, I felt sad. As a teenager, I stayed up late to watch Joan Rivers guest host the Tonight Show. Her brand of humour was edgy, witty and sometimes shocking – even offensive to some. Yes, it was my kind of humour! I’d laugh so hard, I’d have tears streaming down my face and my stomach would hurt.
They say “laughter is the best medicine,” so I decided to find out if there’s any science to substantiate the notion that laughter is good for us.
Does laughter improve health markers? Studies suggest that a good belly laugh can provide some of the health benefits associated with exercise: improved cholesterol and blood pressure, decreased stress hormones and a strengthened immune system. Laughter may also improve sleep and memory.
Does laughter provide cardiorespiratory benefits? While a chuckle doesn’t provide measurable health benefits, hard laughter leads to an increase in heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen consumption. Unfortunately, you can’t get the health benefits from laughing that you get from aerobic exercise, such as cycling or running. You’d have to sustain a high intensity of laughter for a prolonged period of time (“Humor and Laughter May Influence Health,” Mary Payne Bennett and Cecile Lengacher, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2008).
For example, you’d have to laugh 100 times to get the aerobic equivalence of 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on a stationary bike (“Towards Optimal Health: The Experts Discuss Therapeutic Humor,” Jodi R. Godfrey, Journal of Women’s Health, June 2004).
Does laughter strengthen muscles? Laughter engages the abdominal muscles, but you won’t get six-pack abs by laughing. Laughter may not strengthen muscles, but it does relax them. A hearty laugh relieves muscular tension and may relax the muscles for up to 45 minutes. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter can ease pain because it causes the body to produce natural pain killers. http://tinyurl.com/pfzj7cs
Does laughter burn calories? A 2005 study at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine found that laughing for 15 minutes per day burns 10 to 40 calories (depending on an individual’s weight and the intensity of the laughter). That may seem trivial, but it can add up to a weight loss of about four pounds per year, just from laughing! And that’s no joke. http://tinyurl.com/laughter-calories
Does laughter reduce stress? Laughter is a natural coping mechanism for stressful events. Laughter boosts the immune system. Next time you feel a cold coming on, watch a funny movie. Personally, I think laughter is like vitamin C supplements: If you get a cold and take vitamin C, the cold will be gone in a week. If you don’t take vitamin C, the cold will last a full seven days. Even if laughing doesn’t ward off your cold, at least you’ll have fun.
Does laughter impact disease? Research on humour, physiological and psychological well-being and health outcomes suggests that, while there is evidence to support a connection between sense of humour and self-reported physical well-being, it’s difficult to determine whether humour and laughter have any real impact on disease. While watching funny videos may help cancer patients feel better psychologically, more research is needed to determine whether there’s any impact on the disease itself.
One study found that laughter positively affects post-meal blood glucose levels in Type 2 diabetics. The authors suggest that diabetics should seek daily opportunities for laughter (“The Effects of Laughter on Post-Prandial Glucose Levels and Gene Expression in Type 2 Diabetic Patients,” Takashi Hayashi and Kazuo Murakami, Life Sciences, July 29, 2009).
You can add laughter into your life by socializing with funny people, reading joke books and watching humorous films and TV shows. Just like you may have to try different types of sports or exercise until you find what you enjoy, you may have to experiment with different types of humour until you find what makes you laugh. Google “laughter yoga” and practise a contagious form of laughter without a funny stimulus.
Have you heard the joke about the doctor who advised her patient to stop smoking, drinking, eating junk food and staying up late? “Will I live longer?” asked the patient. “No,” replied the doctor. “But it will sure feel longer.” There, you just burned 10 calories!
Gloria Schwartz is a personal trainer at the Soloway JCC and the author of Personal Best: Train Your Brain and Transform Your Body for Life.