DID you hear the one about the man who listened to the match? He burnt his ear. OK, it’s not a side-splitter but if you responded with even the faintest chuckle, you may have saved yourself a few minutes off your next workout.
Laughter, scientists have discovered, can do as much good for your body as going for a run. Volunteers who watched 20 minutes of comedies and stand-up routines experienced a dramatic drop in stress hormones, blood pressure and cholesterol. Their appetite was also stimulated just as it is with exercise.
Doctor Lee Berk from Loma Linda University, California, who led the study, has concluded “laughacise” could be a way to reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. He says: “There’s no doubt about it – the ‘high’ people get from mirthful laughter is very similar to the endorphin rush you get from light to moderate exercise.”
The news that giggling is the new jogging will be particularly welcome to the elderly he says, many of whom long ago packed away their trainers and tracksuits.
Having studied the effects of laughter for over 20 years, this is not the first time Dr Berk has found that sniggering is sensible. Back in the Nineties he found laughter increased the number of cancer-killing cells in patients.
The good news for those who are too stoical to let loose with big belly laughs is that anticipation of a good laugh also has benefits. “It was quite by accident that we stumbled across this finding,” admits Dr Berk. “The expectation of watching a video was enough to raise levels of feel-good endorphins and boost amounts of a hormone that helps our immune systems fight infection.”
Other studies have found laughing reduces allergic responses, including hay fever symptoms. It can even reduce pain. Medical experts in the US asked children aged eight to 14 to put their hand into cold water and they found the whole group tolerated the temperature longer while watching a funny video. Those who laughed most remembered less of the pain. Moreover, hormone tests on their saliva showed their stress levels were lower after laughing.
“In the future, patients watching funny videos could become a standard component of some medical procedures,” says Dr Margaret Stuber who led the American research.
Cartoons are already used in anaesthetic rooms at Manchester Children’s Hospital and “clown doctors” are used in children’s wards across the UK to help distract children from their trauma.
Even if you already have a condition such as diabetes, laughter can be the best medicine. In one study, people who watched a funny video during dinner had lower blood sugar levels after the meal compared to the people who watched a video of a lecture.
Can we train ourselves to laugh more? Yes, says Dr Berk. “If you jog as exercise, you don’t think about where you are going. You jog for the sheer physiological benefits you gain from the experience. Since we know there are health benefits to laughing, we should take the same approach.”
In fact, a growing number of people already are, through yoga.
So-called “laughter yoga” has participants running around halls cackling hysterically. “Children laugh spontaneously about nothing so there’s no reason adults can’t too. We simply tap into that childlike playfulness,” says Akasha Lonsdale, a trainer at the Laughter School (www.thelaughterschool.com). “Although the laughter may feel fake at first, Akasha says this doesn’t matter.
“Even if you pretend to laugh or act happy, your body produces the same physiological responses as if you’re having a genuine belly laugh. Our bodies don’t know the difference between thinking about doing something and actually doing it.”
Matt Modget, 27, tried it a couple of years ago. “I saw something on the TV about it and was intrigued.
“In our class, we had to run around the room making laughter noises but it’s so silly that you end up laughing a lot and it’s incredible how relaxed you feel at the end. After every class I sleep so well.”
Laughter yoga tones muscles, improves respiration and circulation and burns calories. Laughing 200 times is the equivalent of rowing for 10 minutes and going to a laughter yoga class on a regular basis can help you lose 4lb in a year.
Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, isn’t surprised. Laughter is scientifically proven to be contagious. She says: “Laughter helps us interact socially. It plays an incredibly important role in building strong bonds between individuals.”
So impressed are some councils by the healing powers of laughter that they have funded laughter therapy. One SureStart centre in Lancashire ran a six-week course for depressed mothers and the results were staggering. “My cheeks hurt with laughing,” says one woman. “Now I join in more with the children and I’ve changed the way I look at things.”
You can always cultivate your sense of humor by making an effort to find the funny side of things says chartered psychologist Dr Michael Lowis who has carried out research on the benefits of humor.
With the average person only laughing for six minutes a day rather than the recommended 20, we have a long way to go.
So next time you’re feeling low fear not, just look at the sunny side.