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Can Laughter Count as Exercise?

Could a few giggles improve fitness, or is such a claim simply laughable? Read on to decide if a bout of laughter trumps hitting the gym.
Can Laughter Count as Exercise?
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How’s this for a good laugh? Fits of laughter have been linked to reduced pain and mental stress, stronger social bonds, and improved immune system response [1] [2] [3] [4]. But can a belly laugh actually improve cardiovascular health and land us hardy-har-hard abs? Cracking up can sure feel like a workout, and recent research suggests that it may actually be a reasonable form of exercise [5]. But before swapping sneaks for Louis C.K. tickets, let’s see how those laughs really measure up.

Hit the Laugh Track — Why It Matters

Some gelotology findings (yup, there’s even a name for the study of LOLing) have shown laughter may produce some of the same positive effects as exercise. But how, exactly? In one study, researchers had 300 volunteers watch clips from either a stressful movie (“Saving Private Ryan”) or a comedy (“There’s Something About Mary”  — remember the zipper scene?!) [6].

Besides the difference in audible tee-hees, results showed a 30 to 40 percent increase in diameter of the heart’s blood vessels during the funny scenes compared to the tense ones. And those changes to blood vessel dilation are similar to what’s seen during exercise, all part of an important process that helps the body regulate blood flow and reduce inflammation — clearly no laughing matter [7].

So should we spend an hour of our day cracking jokes instead of hitting the gym? To land the full benefits of exercise, it seems laughter alone isn't necessarily the best medicine.

Happily Ever Laughter? — The Answer/Debate

While classes in laughter yoga, which combine laughter outbursts with yogi breathing techniques, are growing in popularitylaugh-letics are still no sport. Research shows a person would have to be seriously in stitches (for hours on end) to see any real muscle toning or conditioning effects [8]. And Cameron Diaz isn’t that funny.

For real health benefits, stick to 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise four to five times per week, as recommend by the CDC. And let’s not forget all the other bonuses of a good laugh. Taking it way back, research suggests that laughter evolved to unite strangers and make friends [9]. And more friends means a larger social support network — more recently linked to better health [10]. So while laughter shouldn’t be considered a substitution to working out, LOLing does have its benefits. Go ahead, sit back (after that evening run!) and enjoy some well-earned laughs.

The Takeaway

While a laugh attack sure feels good, there is little evidence that suggests laughing can effectively replace a workout.

What’s your favorite way to have a good laugh?

Illustration by Elaine Liu

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Works Cited +

  1. Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold. Dunbar, R.I., Baron, R., Frangou, A., et al. British Academy Centenary Research Project, University of Oxford, UK. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 2012 Mar 22;279(1731):1161-1167.
  2. Humor and Laughter May Influence Health: II. Complementary Therapies and Humor in a Clinical Population. Bennet, M.P., Lengacher, C. Indiana State University School of Nursing, Terre Haute, IN. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2006 Jun;3(2):187-90.
  3. Effects of humor and laughter on psychological functioning, quality of life, health status, and pulmonary functioning among patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a preliminary investigation. Lebowitz, K.R., Suh, S., Diaz, P.T., et al. Heart Lung, 2011 Jul-Aug;40(4):310-9.
  4. The effect of mirthful laughter on stress and natural killer cell activity. Bennet, M.P., Zeller, J.M., Rosenberg, L., et al. Indiana State University School of Nursing, Terre Haute, IN. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2003 Mar-Apr;9(2):38-45.
  5. Effect of mirthful laughter on vascular function. Sugawara, J., Tarumi, T., Tanaka, H. National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan. The American Journal of Cardiology, 2010 Sep 15;106(6):856-9.
  6. The effect of mirthful laughter on the human cardiovascular system. Miller, M., Fry, W.F. Department of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore, MD. Medical Hypotheses, 2009 Nov;73(5):636-9. Epub 2009 May 27.
  7. The effect of mirthful laughter on the human cardiovascular system. Miller, M., Fry, W.F. Department of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore, MD. Medical Hypotheses, 2009 Nov;73(5):636-9. Epub 2009 May 27.
  8. Humor and Laughter May Influence Health: III. Laughter and Health outcomes. Bennet, M.P., Lengacher, C. Indiana State University College of Nursing and University of South Florida. Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2008 Mar;5(1):37-40.
  9. The evolution and functions of laughter and humor: a synthetic approach. Gervais, M., Wilson, D.S. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 2005 Dec;80(4):395-430.
  10. Social support and health: a review of physiological processes potentially underlying links to disease outcomes. Uchino, B.N. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 2006 Aug;29(4):377-87.

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