Laugh Yourself Fit

Wellness: Why you should get a daily dose of humor—jest for the health of it!

First, you hear a collective deep breath as arms are raised toward the sky; next, peals of laughter and the sound of hands clapping in rhythm. What is this, you ask? A boisterous crowd at a baseball game doing the “wave”? An audience at the local comedy club? Surprise: It’s a meeting of the Laughter Club in the middle of a laughter yoga session!

Developed by Madan Kataria, MD, a physician based in Bombay, India, laughter yoga is a fun new way to help participants destress while getting a workout. The whole concept of group laughter exercise, says Kataria, is based on yogic breathing methods designed to produce unique physiological balances by connecting mind, body and spirit.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

“A daily dose of laughter can bring serious health benefits,” says Judith Kupersmith, MD, of Texas Tech Medical Center’s neuropsychiatry department in Lubbock, Texas. Kupersmith explains that humor is really a form of stress reduction and relaxation, both of which can reduce anxiety. “Humor is a high-level defense mechanism against anxiety,” she says. “Laughter often yields social acceptance, which diminishes anxiety and bolsters our emotional health. When someone says funny things, the listener feels relaxed and calm, and the person using the humor also relaxes and feels less anxiety.”

Steven Sultanoff, PhD, is a psychologist based in Irvine, California, and president of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor. A self-described “mirthologist,” Sultanoff says we cannot experience humor and feel depressed, anxious and angry at the same time. “In those moments of experiencing humor, other feelings dissolve, providing a respite . . . as well as hope that those other feelings can be reduced or eliminated,” he says.

Beyond the Psychological Benefits

If you’ve ever had a good, hard laugh, then you probably experienced the physical affects of that laughter the next day. According to Kataria, a good belly laugh literally works the abdominal muscles. It also internally “massages” your organs, improving the blood supply to the intestines and helping the bowels move properly (go ahead—you can laugh at that!).

According to Sultanoff, “Laughter changes how we feel physically, and it affects our biochemistry.” Scientific studies have shown that laughter may do many things:

  • Strengthen the immune system, possibly by increasing antibodies and disease-fighting cells (Dillon et al. 1985).
  • Increase tolerance to pain, by increasing endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers (Sultanoff 1997).
  • Provide a mini-aerobic workout by increasing heart and respiration rates, as well as blood pressure. According to experts, one minute of hearty laughter is equal to approximately 10 minutes on a rowing machine (Fry & Savin 1988). Laughter is an especially great workout for those who are sedentary or confined to bed or a wheelchair.
  • Work certain muscles, such as those in the face and abdomen. During laughter, the facial and abdominal muscles are engaged; following a bout of laughter, the exercised muscles relax. Contracting and relaxing the muscles in this way can help to alleviate the spasm-pain cycle for victims of neuralgia or rheumatism (Fry 1992).
  • Help those with certain respiratory illnesses by aiding ventilation and clearing mucus. Some respiratory therapists are even using “humor respiration” (i.e., laughter breathing) in place of more uncomfortable clinical procedures (Fry & Rader 1977).
  • Reduce the incidence of arterial blockage, angioplasties and heart attacks and increase longevity in cardiac patents compared to peers who are depressed, anxious or angry (Sultanoff 1998).

How to Spread Laughter

Kataria’s Laughter Club originated in India, but clubs can now be found in fitness facilities, yoga studios and corporate fitness centers in numerous countries throughout the world. Essentially, the Laughter Club format uses different types of laughter to integrate yogic breathing into a fitness format. For details on Kataria’s class format, see “The Laughter Club” on page 66.

According to Kataria, author of a book called Laugh for No Reason (Madhuri International, 1999), the motto of the Laughter Club is to share the “spirit of laughter” with others. But you don’t have to be a stand-up comedian or a humor expert to bring laughter to others. As a fitness professional, you are in a unique position to interject some humor into your classes and sessions when it’s least expected.

“When I was coaching my Dragonboat crew for the World Championships, I used laughter to help recover from our hard sessions,” says rower Gavin Godfrey of Sydney, Australia. “During the warm-downs, while we were paddling easy, I encouraged all the paddlers to talk and joke around with each other. This worked well because it helped relax muscles; you could see the difference in the facial muscles, for example. The added benefit [of humor] for a team is bonding. A team that laughs together enjoys being with each other.”

Lynn Shaw, MSW, is a psychotherapist based in Lebanon, Indiana, who created a fitness class called Laugh-A-Size to encourage older, sedentary women to try movement in a nonintimidating environment. The Laugh-A-Size class, which is held at the Lebanon Sports and Fitness Center, incorporates informal joke telling and more purposeful laughter after 35 minutes of low-impact aerobics.

Shaw also incorporates laughter during isometric strength training exercises. “During the chair work, we may end by placing the hands over the belly and doing ‘ha-ha’ breaths to strengthen the stomach muscles (people with hernias shouldn’t do this),” explains Shaw. “Sometimes I ask participants to pull their stomachs in, while seated, and turn to each other and say ‘tee-hee’ or ‘ha-ha.’ This reminds them that doing an isometric exercise doesn’t mean they should stop breathing!”

Shaw says fitness professionals should be open to the benefits of laughter in their classes and personal training sessions. “Sometimes people think intensity will be diminished by the laughter,” says Shaw. “In my opinion, laughter helps to increase the benefits of the workout because the release of tension from laughing helps increase energy.”

Fitness professional Trisha Yeager is bringing humor to patients in nursing homes, centers for disabled adults, children’s shelters, hospitals and other institutions throughout Southern California. Yeager created a fitness program called “Laughtercise,” which typically begins with deep breathing exercises and progresses to an activity that is vigorous, active and fun. “It’s very spontaneous,” she says. “Someone might tell a joke, and the laughter just gets exaggerated.” Yeager uses games, not only to increase participants’ activity levels, but also to enhance the “fun factor.”

“We’ll play Zoom Ball or wear paper bags with targets drawn on them and shoot silly string at each other. It’s very physical, and there’s a lot of comradery.” Yeager is hoping to use her “Laughtercise” program in the near future to bring rival youth gangs together. “The focus of laughter is very intense,” she says. “When you’re focusing on laughter, it’s very hard to focus on anything else.”

Getting Your Act Together

Want to tickle your clients’ funny bones? Here are some ideas to get your creative juices flowing:

  • Forget the routine for one song and instead have participants do a “freestyle dance.”
  • Do the funky chicken or the hokey pokey.
  • Play “Follow the Leader.”
  • Shout out the name of an animal and have participants move like that animal throughout one entire routine.
  • Play active party games, such as egg-on-a-spoon race or balloon-between-the-knees race.
  • In the middle of your tape, stick in a hoedown song. Have participants spontaneously pair up and square dance.
  • Occasionally wear a costume to class or to your training sessions.
  • Hand out fake noses with mustaches and have everyone wear them during class.
  • Place whoopee cushions under several of the members’ mats. (Make sure you trick more than one participant so as not to single anybody out.)

For Laughing Out Loud!

Humor, like exercise, is best experienced in spurts throughout the day. And it’s really easy to find things that interject humor and joy into everyday life.

Expand Your Comic Vision. “Comic vision is the ability to perceive the humor around us,” says Sultanoff. “It begins with discovering what tickles our funny bone.” He says that our comic vision expands as we share our humor with others. This sentiment is echoed by Karyn Buxman, RN, MSN, author of This Won’t Hurt a Bit! and Other Fractured Truths in Healthcare (LaMoine Press, 2000). According to Buxman, “The first step in finding humor in a situation is to assume that it’s there.”

Add Props to Your Fitness Repertoire. Sultanoff recommends wearing a clown nose at least once a day for a week or keeping a stash of toys to choose from. “I blow bubbles from my car while stopped at traffic lights or while waiting in line at a drive-through, fast-food restaurant.” For those who prefer a more subtle approach, “Try wearing a humorous pin or keeping a set of windup toys or [rubber] balls at your work station,” says Sultanoff.

Take Advantage of Laughable Moments and Learn to Laugh at Yourself More Often. A situation in and of itself isn’t necessarily stressful (unless you’re being held at gunpoint while some thief robs your car!); it’s your perception of the situation that creates stress. The next time you trip over that same door threshold that you’ve tripped on at least a million times, imagine yourself as a modern-day Dick Van Dyke and laugh at yourself!

Be Spontaneous in Your Humor. One way to do this is to read signs literally. Sultanoff tells of a time when he was in a cafeteria line and saw a sign that said, “We only accept U.S. traveler’s checks.” He turned to the cashier and said, “I guess I’ll have to put everything back. I only have cash!” Not only did he get a good laugh himself, but he shared his humor with another and brightened her day, too.

Act As Though Things Really Are Funny. The older we get, the more responsibilities we take on, the more stressful life becomes and the less we seem to laugh. Things we once thought were funny just aren’t anymore. Or maybe it’s just our perception. Kataria says that even pretending to be amused can brighten your day. He tells of an actress who played a very sad role for 10 years and started having different physical ailments, including depression. After ruling out any physical cause, her physicians determined that her acting role was contributing to her ill health. They recommended that she quit the part and switch to comedy. Once she did, she noticed a gradual lessening of her symptoms! This case led to the Laughter Club’s basic philosophy, which is to “act happy.” In other words, fake it. Or as Kataria advises: “Fake it ’til you make it!”

The Punch Line

It is common knowledge among humor professionals that children laugh approximately 400 times a day. Adults? Only 15 times! When I get stressed out, I sit back and watch my young sons. Sometimes, I don’t even have to be in the same room; I just sit and listen. Kids are such natural comedians!

I think it’s time we all take our humor a bit more seriously, don’t you? So, . . . heard any good jokes lately?

For the latest research, statistics, sample classes, and more, "Like" IDEA on Facebook here.

Carrie Myers Smith

IDEA Author/Presenter
Carrie Myers, BS, is the owner of CarrieMichele Fitness and author of Squeezing Your Size 14 Self in... more less
References
Dillon, K, et al. 1985. Positive emotional states and enhancement of the immune system. International Journal of Psychiatry Medicine, 15, 13-8.

Fry, W. 1992. The physiologic effects of humor, mirth and laughter. Journal of the American Medical Association, 267 (13), 1857-8.

Fry, W., & Rader, C. 1977. The respiratory components of mirthful laughter. Journal of Biological Psychology, 19, 39-50.

Fry, W., & Savin, M. 1988. Mirthful laughter and blood pressure. Humor, 1, 49-62.

Sultanoff, S. 1997. Survival of the witty-est: Creating resilience through humor. Journal of Therapeutic Humor, 11 (5), 1-2.

Sultanoff, S. 1998. Humor reduces the risk of heart disease. Journal of Therapeutic Humor, 7 (5), 1-2.
March 2002

© 2002 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

Get the award-winning IDEA Fitness Journal delivered to your door every month!

Get IDEA Fitness Journal

Article Comments

Add Comment

Image CAPTCHA
Cancel
View all questions