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The Capital Times 
Madison, Wisconsin
Entertainment & Lifestyle   May 22, 2007

Go ahead and laugh! Research shows it truly is good medicine

Debra Carr-Elsing

Start an imaginary lawn mower and follow it around the room. When the mower runs out of gas, try another laughter exercise. Put a straw in your mouth and smile -- it's especially funny when everyone in the circle does it, too.  Dance the Hokey Pokey, and let yourself chuckle loud and often. Soon it will be spontaneous, and the laughter becomes contagious.

Thanks to modern science, much is now known about the benefits of laughter and humor. That's why Meriter Health Services is offering the free class "Laughter Fitness: Learning to Laugh for No Reason" as part of its Senior Health and Fitness Day May 30.  "Research shows that laughter strengthens the immune system, burns calories, improves digestion and reduces stress," says Diane Kane, a certified laughter leader and class facilitator.

A former teacher, Kane received training in therapeutic laughter from Steve Wilson, a psychologist from Ohio who launched an organization that promotes healing with laughter and the role of emotions and attitudes in health and well-being.

His program -- the World Laughter Tour Inc. -- has roots in India, where cardiologist Dr. Madan Kataria established laughter clubs to help his patients and friends. It also includes techniques for doing laughter exercises and steps for good-hearted living focusing on flexibility, gratitude, kindness and forgiveness.

"There are many different names for this -- laughter fitness, laughter therapy or laughter yoga -- simply because it serves lots of purposes," says Kane, who lives in Glendale.

Betsy Haimson, a certified laughter leader in Madison, agrees with that assessment.  "Laughter exercises can be done in the privacy of your own home or with a group," she says. "Continuous laughter can be very aerobic because it works the abdominal muscles and diaphragm and tones internal organs. Some people call it laughter jogging.'"

It's a routine of deep breathing and stretching exercise that enhances our sense of well-being and increases production of endorphins, which are brain chemicals associated with pleasure. Laughter also has been shown to help with pain management, Haimson says.

So it's not surprising that when people are near death and given a choice, 84 percent chose humor over seriousness, says hospice researcher Doug Smith.  Another study published in the American Journal of Hospice Care found that 85 percent of terminally ill patients felt that humor would be helpful in their care, but only 14 percent experienced humor from caregivers.

"In the workplace, laughter and humor are beneficial, too," Kane says. Together, they give a boost to creativity and problem-solving by activating the limbic system in the brain, increasing coordination between the right and left sides.  In other words, laughter allows us to do more "whole brain work," she says. It repairs the damage of constant stress, which constricts blood vessels and disconnects the brain's two hemispheres.  "Humor also makes us more open to new ideas and improves office camaraderie," Kane says.

In India, the laughter club movement tends to be social. In the United States -- where more than 500 clubs have formed -- it's seen as more of a health option. Madison has no laughter clubs that meet regularly.  "Laughter has been brought down to a clinical science," Kane says. "It's an aerobic workout for the heart and lungs. It boosts our immune system and decreases the negative effects of stress."  It's also been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the incidence of heart disease, she adds, so it's no joke that laughing is good for us.

According to researchers, the average preschooler laughs up to 400 times a day, while the average adult laughs seven to 15 times.  "We need to transform ourselves into children again," Haimson quips. 


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