It’s true what they say, writes Julie Penfold: laughter really is the best medicine. Yet as we get older, we laugh on average only 15 times a day, compared to children who can laugh and giggle over 200 times a day. Having a hearty chuckle benefits health in numerous ways and the more we do so, the more we reap the wellbeing rewards…
When we laugh, we change physiologically as muscles are stretched both across the face and throughout the body. Pulse and blood pressure go up briefly and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our cells and tissues. This provides a range of health-boosting benefits:
Good for your heart – laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, helping to provide protection to the heart. Research cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center recommend that we should all try to laugh for 15 minutes a day and combine this with regular exercise to boost cardiovascular health. Regular laughter is also known to have a lowering effect on blood pressure.
Improves breathing – laughter stimulates the respiratory system and expends more air from the lungs than we take in; this enables us to breathe more deeply – which is particularly helpful for people affected by respiratory conditions such as asthma or bacterial infections such as bronchitis. The deep breathing that occurs when we laugh can help to clear the lungs of any blockages. Some experts also suggest that regular hearty chuckles can increase lung capacity over time.
Boosts immunity – laughing increases infection-fighting antibodies and thus reduces our susceptibility to colds and coughs. It also lowers several hormones associated with stress, including cortisol, helping us to feel more relaxed and less anxious. Additionally, laughter relaxes the whole body and increases the flow of oxygen to relieve tense muscles.
Reduces pain – a chuckle releases endorphins that not only boost your mood but also relieve pain. Researchers at the University of Oxford found that a healthy burst of laughter can help to increase our pain tolerance.
Burns calories – yes, really: research published in the International Journal of Obesity found that laughter increased both heart rate and calorie expenditure by 20 percent and the longer people laughed for, the greater the effects. Scientists suggest that 15 minutes of laughter a day will burn up to 40 calories, depending on your weight and the intensity of your laughter.
Provides a mini-workout – laughing intensely for an hour can burn around 100 calories (the equivalent of lifting weights for 30 minutes), according to research commissioned by UKTV Gold. When we giggle joyfully, our hearts beat faster, sending larger amounts of blood around the body. Letting out a hearty burst works the shoulders and also makes the chest rise and fall. This forces the abdominal muscles to work harder which in turn can help to tighten the tummy area. A hearty belly laugh can also exercise the muscles of scalp, neck, chest, arms and legs. Having a giggle also uses up to 15 facial muscles.
Relieves depression – laughter is renowned as a powerful weapon to help those afflicted by depression or by seasonal affective disorder (SAD) as it reduces tension and stress, while lowering feelings of anxiety and irritation.
Increases concentration – having a giggle with colleagues in office hours may help you to achieve more at work, too, by improving productivity, concentration and leading to better communication. Research that was undertaken by a team of psychologists at universities in Kent and Liverpool also found thst the mood-boosting effects of shared laughter may increase our altruism towards strangers.
Builds confidence – laughter experts say that having a giggle can help to calm nerves in social situations and allows us to drop our inhibitions and feel more confident. They also suggest that the act of laughing enables us to express ourselves more clearly and increases our sense of clarity.
Makes your skin glow – when we laugh, we take in more oxygen and this temporary increase in our heart rate and blood pressure has a positive effect on the skin. This spike causes the capillaries that are close to the skin to dilate in a similar way to when we exercise. This has the added benefit of feeding the skin with an increased supply of oxygen and nutrients.
Try one – or more – of these straightforward suggestions to increase your laughter quota...
• Get together with a friend – have a regular catch-up in person or have a chat on the phone, guaranteed to make you giggle.
• Try laughter yoga therapy or laughter coaching – learn to laugh more by faking it first, then using the clever techniques to start laughing heartily and genuinely at the drop of a hat. Very effective.
• Watch a comedy – (yes, it’s that simple…) sitting down to watch a sitcom or film that is guaranteed to make you laugh can provide a good workout and burn a few calories. Do take care what you snack on, though, as a packet of crisps or a bar of chocolate could undo all those calorie-busting benefits.
• Learn to laugh at your mistakes – improvisation is another great intervention that you can use to feel more comfortable within yourself, which in turn will lead to more laughs. The immediacy and spontaneity of an improv session will quickly help you to relax and have fun.