“I died laughing!” my friend told me, recounting her evening at the comedy club the night before. She described how she laughed until her sides ached and mascara ran down her face.
Wow—a pretty scary picture. And yet people don’t really die laughing—quite the opposite. Laughter is one of the healthiest tools we have.
Remember when you were a child and everything was oh-so-funny? When the silliest of remarks would send you and your friends into gales of laughter? When did that stop? What does it take now to make you pause long enough in your busy life to process humor?
Do you laugh much, or have you noticed a distinct lack of laughter in your life lately? If you are not laughing, you are failing to take advantage of one of the healthiest natural activities available. So in between all the busy-ness with which your days are filled, take some time to laugh – and you may just find yourself healthier in the process. Here are five ways that laughter can improve your health.
1. Provides aerobic exercise for your cardiovascular system
You can get exercise from laughing. Don’t believe it? Take your pulse for 15 seconds and multiply by 4. (This will give you your resting heart rate for one minute). Now laugh. It doesn’t matter if it’s a real laugh or a fake laugh. Try laughing for as little as 30 seconds or up to 2 minutes if you’re in good shape. Stop and take your pulse again.
Typically you’ll notice an increase in your pulse, your face will appear more flushed and your breathing will be faster and deeper than before, as well. While it’s not the same as running for a mile, it has its benefits, nonetheless. As a matter of fact, psychoneuroimmunology (mind-body) expert, Dr. William Fry, noted in one of his studies that (in adults over 50) laughing for 2 minutes provided the equivalent aerobic response as 10 minutes on a rowing machine (also known as an expensive sweater hanger for some of us).
The beauty of laughter as exercise is that it can be done without any special equipment, doesn’t require advanced skills or coordination, and can be done any time of the day in just about any setting, as often as desired.
And laughter begets laughter. Loosening up those laughter muscles will help make laughter a more regular part of your daily life!
2. Decreases muscle tension
Have you ever doubled over laughing? Have you ever laughed so hard that you had to hang onto a desk or a chair to hold you steady? (This may be accompanied by snorting milk out your nose—but that’s another article.) There’s a physiological reason for this.
When we laugh, our skeletal muscles (the ones that help us move) go into a state of tension. Then they relax. We usually feel this in our abdomens, but it’s actually occurring in muscles all over our bodies. And at times, when taken to extremes, this effect can actually become detrimental. Some of you know where this is going… You can laugh so hard that you lose bladder control (a.k.a laughing until you leak!). But this relaxation can be beneficial to the rest of your body—especially if you’re suffering from a tight neck or tight shoulders from a long day at work.
3. Improves your oxygen levels
When you laugh, the contraction of your diaphragm forces air out of your lungs. Then when you inhale you pull fresh air and oxygen down deep into your lungs. This “exercising” of your lungs can cause coughing in someone who has a cold, who has a mild respiratory ailment, who is a smoker—or someone who is so stressed that she just hasn’t had a deep breath in a really long time!
Scientists have measured oxygen levels in people before and after laughter and found that arterial blood gas levels have risen significantly. More oxygen in your lungs means more oxygen to your cells throughout your entire body—definitely a health booster.
4. Laughter Energizes!
It’s mid-afternoon and you’re starting to slump. You could grab a $4.00 cup of coffee for a shot of caffeine. Or you could try laughing for a minute or two.
When we laugh, our sympathetic nervous system responds by producing more catecholamines (a hormone), which increases our levels of alertness and memory, as well as enhancing our learning and creativity. Combine this with the benefit of more oxygen (mentioned above) and you’ve got the formula for an energized and productive day.
5. Strengthens your immune system
We’ve known for years that stress can weaken our immune systems. You put too many items on your schedule and realize your throat is getting scratchy. Then the boss adds another project and you develop bronchitis. Your spouse gets a promotion that requires a move and you develop walking pneumonia. If one more person adds one more item to your overloaded plate, you could wind up on a ventilator!
Scientists now have the technology to examine the cells in our body that comprise our immune system. It’s more complicated than we ever imagined, but we can see that when people incorporate humor and laughter into their routines, their bodies’ immune systems respond positively short term (immediately), mid-range (days to weeks) and even long-term (weeks to months). This isn’t to say that laughter will cure anything, but it’s a great adjunct to any medical therapy.
Laughter isn’t the be-all-end-all, but it’s easy, it’s abundant, and doesn’t cost you anything. It can improve your health, it’s fun and it feels good. With so much to gain, laugh it up!