It’s said that laughter is the best medicine. A new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Academy suggests that it could also be a form of exercise.
Imagine, if instead of going to spend an hour on the elliptical or to kick-boxing class, you could just have a good guffaw?
(Please feel free to exercise while reading this post by watching the videos we have included)
As Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University who led the study, says in the New York Times, while we associate laughter with our emotions, it is actually a physical action involving the “repeated, forceful exhalation of breath from the lungs” and giving the diaphragm a good workout. Citing the oft-repeated notion of “laughing till it hurts,” Dunbar points out that laughing for extended periods of times can indeed be “painful and exhausting.”
As the researchers write in their abstract, “relaxed social… laughter is associated with feelings of wellbeing and heightened affect, a proximate explanation for which might be the release of endorphins.” Endorphins are natural opiates released after strenuous exercise that also ”play a crucial role in the management of pain” by creating a “feeling of euphoric calm and well-being” — the oft-noted “runner’s high.”
So, to see if laughter can be considered exercise, Dunbar and his colleagues looked at — yes, ironically – how much pain their participants (a large number of undergraduate men and women) could tolerate . To study pain thresholds without having them extremely painful procedures (a lumbar puncture), the researchers looked at endorphin levels: If your pain threshold goes up, it’s a likely sign that endorphins are being released.
Participants were shown short videos that were either comical or dry, factual documentaries; after watching the former, they not only laughed but their pain thresholds increased, a sign that they were releasing endorphins. Via audio monitors, the researchers also found that the undergraduates’ abdominal muscles were contracting. They thereby determined that the actual physical activity of laughing (contracting muscles and releasing endorphins) occurred “at least in part… [from] the pleasure of watching the comedy.”
The researchers also found that people laughed more and harder when they viewed the videos in a group. That is, their pain thresholds were higher when they engaged in “social laughter.” An earlier experiment in 2009 by Dunbar produced similar findings about how engaging in strenuous activities (rowing) with a group led to people having higher pain thresholds.
In other words, if you want to get the most out of your workout, (1) do so in the company of others and (2) prepare yourself with some good jokes. Laughter can aid in getting yourself through strenuous physical activity.
As for whether laughter itself qualifies as exercise? It can, if you laugh hard enough (and especially in a group), produce a “laugher’s high” effect. But if you’re looking to firm up your abs or burn off some calories, that’s not yet clear, though the study does make the point that laughter can be more of a serious business and (I’ll just say it, ha ha!) much, much more than a laughing matter.
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