Laugh yourself skinny
Weight loss is hardly a laughing matter here in the Obese Nation, where two-thirds of adults are overweight or worse. But the newest "aha...
The Washington Post
Weight loss is hardly a laughing matter here in the Obese Nation, where two-thirds of adults are overweight or worse. But the newest "aha!" breakthrough in the battle of the bulge just might prompt a snicker.
One can lose weight by laughing. No joke. Purposeful laughing is gaining a following. Thousands of laugh clubs worldwide invite people to, well, laugh out loud together. A hybrid branch of psychology called "laughter therapy" is finding its way into hospitals, and a new exercise movement called Laughtercising has created guidebooks and laugh-track CDs of nonstop hooting and howling to get the yuks started.
"When it comes to the weight-loss arena, I ask myself: Is laughter a gimmick or a gift?" says Kathy Overman of Bellevue, who writes under the pen name Katie Namrevo ("Overman" backwards). "Some people don't take this seriously."
But she does. On the back cover of her 2004 book, "Laugh It Off! Weight Loss for the Fun of It," is a "before" photo showing her as a frumpy 50-year-old and an "after" photo as a 54-year-old who says she laughed off 35 pounds.
Overman was a "stress eater" who had tried all the diets and pills. One day, after watching a TV program on laughter therapy, she headed to the fridge to "medicate" and decided to try laughing instead. Loud and hard, like a lunatic. She found that laughing 30 seconds to five minutes as often as 10 times a day, her cravings stopped. She began losing weight, had more energy and developed a yen to exercise.
The laughter industryLaughing exercises "will definitely become a part of all the fitness clubs and yoga centers," predicts Thomas Varkey, a business consultant who two years ago founded the Laughter for Life club in Boston.
His is one of about 1,000 in the U.S. and 3,000 worldwide, most founded by "laughter leaders" trained and certified by either of two laughter-advocacy outfits, Laughter Club International, in Mumbia, India, or the World Laughter Tour, based in Ohio.
"It gives a lot of exercise to our body and a kind of well-being," says Varkey. "The well-being helps us not to eat too much."
When Chicago public relations pro Betty Hoeffner decided last year to make a CD of uproarious laughter, friends thought she was crazy. But she had been using laughter to cut stress for years and was convinced 10 minutes a day would reduce stress for others. So she founded the Laughtercising program that gradually builds people's ability to laugh. And she produced the "Laugh It Off" CD to trigger the mirth.
"It's just laughing, but you have to work up to the 10 minutes" as with any exercise, she says.
"The laughter industry is really funny to me," says physician Patch Adams, an alternative-medicine advocate and the icon of the health benefits of laughter.
"The clearest connection (of laughter to weight-loss) is that depression, boredom and loneliness are the gigantic reasons why people eat gigantic quantities of trash and fatness," says Adams, who founded the Gesundheit! Institute, which works to bring fun and creativity to health care. "It's not really laughter that is a great power, but the life that leads to laughter and the readiness to laugh at things."
What is mirth worth?Science is finding that laughter alone has benefits. A study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine showed that daily hearty laughing increases the blood flow by expanding stress-constricted vessels.
"A belly laugh is internal jogging," says William Fry, associate professor emeritus of clinical psychiatry at Stanford University. Laughing involves "a great deal of physical exercise and muscular behavior" — 15 facial muscles plus dozens of others all over your body that flex and relax. Your pulse and respiration increase, oxygenating the blood.
"Laughing 100 to 200 times per day is the cardiovascular equivalent of rowing for 10 minutes," Fry calculates.
Laughter sets the respiratory apparatus and its muscles into motion, he says. Which means even employees who laugh too hard and too long at the boss' jokes are getting healthier, if not ahead.
Lee Berk, associate research professor of pathology and human anatomy at Loma Linda University, is a pioneer in studying the effects of laughter.
"The biological changes we see with moderate, routine exercise," he says, "are very similar to the changes we see with the constant use of mirthful laughter."
But can laughter make an ounce of difference in that midriff bulge? That hasn't been proved but can be extrapolated, Berk says. He figures that one day doctors will tell overweight patients to eat right, exercise and get 15 minutes a day of hearty laughter.
Robert Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, thinks that's a little premature. In 2000, he wrote the book called "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation."
He says that for laughter to produce the same benefits as aerobic exercise, it would require a long, sustained bout of hysterics.
"If we were treating laughter as a drug and it had to go for review before the FDA," he says, "it wouldn't pass because we really don't understand its physiological correlates and consequences."
He chuckles. "Having said that, a life with laughter is certainly more fulfilling than one without."
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