Turns out, giggling is actually good for you – and simpler than strapping on Pilates paraphernalia, and sillier, perhaps, than even Zumba. Studies show laughter, which lowers the heart rate, whittles the waistline, and gives the lungs a hearty workout, may be even healthier for the body than today’s trendiest forms of exercise.
Enrollment is surging at improv classes and circus schools, and a growing number of Americans are also joining laughter clubs, where they learn to chuckle their hellos and goodbyes, mime their way through complicated jokes, and invent songs made of “ho-ho-ho” and ‘ha-ha-ha’ sounds.
Why all this clowning around? Health experts say it’s not just for kicks. Recent research shows that laughter comes with a whole host of health benefits. “It relaxes your muscles, opens your arteries, and improves blood flow to your heart,” says Steve Wilson, founder of the World Laughter Tour. “It gives you a cardiovascular workout, helps you metabolize sugar, and releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.”
Ever since Tibetan Buddhist monks started practicing laughter meditation some 5,000 years ago, health advocates have long known that a good guffaw is good medicine. But over the past decade, laughter as a medical remedy has become especially popular thanks to lab studies proving its positive effects. Scientists now know that laughter can do everything from ward off heart attacks to minimize sensations of pain.
According to studies at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, laughter improves immunity by increasing the number of white blood cells cells while raising antibody levels, providing protection against viruses and bacteria. And Vanderbilt University Medical Center research suggests that laughing increases energy expenditure and heart rate by up to 20% – and doing it for ten to 15 minutes a day can actually help you drop four pounds per year.
“Rigorous laughter can burn 400 calories per hour – more than walking and cycling combined,” claims Francine Shore of New York City’s Grabbagiraffe Laughter Club. But those would need to be serious, continuous 60-minute-long belly-laughs.
As if these findings weren’t reason enough to start snickering, experts say that giggles and guffaws don’t have to be genuine to have a positive effect. “The body doesn’t know the difference between simulated and spontaneous laughter,” Shore claims. “Even if you fake it, the body still responds in a positive way.”
Proving the old adage that laughter is contagious, chortling has the most measurable benefits when it’s shared. That’s why many health care centers are hiring clowns and comedians to work with their patients in group settings. “Get one person in a room chuckling, and everyone else can’t help but start,” says Robin Adler, who coordinates a laughter therapy group at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center.
Think it’s hilarious to imagine Nicolas Cage (and Halle Berry and even Gwyneth Paltrow) grunt through a naked yoga routine? Even more hilarious may be Laughter Yoga – blessedly free of tortuous poses and bare-bottomed celebrities, and allegedly able to ease every ailment from asthma to arthritis.
Want to try laughter exercises that purport to boost your health? Here are five from Laughter Yoga founder Dr. Madan Kataria, a.k.a. the “Guru of Giggling”:
1. Hula Hoop Laughter – Pretend you’re rolling a hula hoop around your body, then change directions, laughing as you try this with your neck, waist, hips, then legs.
2. Recession Remedy – Laugh as you turn your pockets inside out and look for money that isn’t there; or laugh as you open an imaginary credit card bill and review all the charges inside.
3. The Zipper – Laugh as loudly and exuberantly as you can, then do your best to “zip” your mouth shut, repeating this exercise several times.
4. The Crescendo – Fake a slight smile; titter quietly, then chortle slowly and gradually until your laughter increases in tempo and volume.
5. Greeting Laughter – In a group, greet everyone as you normally would (e.g. shaking hands and nodding), but instead of talking, replace your words with unfettered laughter.