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A Funny Way To Lose Weight: Laugh It Off

When Chicago public relations professional Betty Hoeffner decided last year to make a CD of uproarious laughter, friends thought she was crazy. But she had been using concerted laughter to reduce stress for years and was convinced that laughing 10 minutes a day reduced stress for others. So she founded the Laughtercising program that gradually builds up people's ability to laugh hard for 10 minutes at a time. And she produced the 60-minute "Laugh It Off" CD to trigger laugh contagion.

"It's just laughing, but you have to work up to the 10 minutes just as you would in any exercise program," says Hoeffner, who sells the $10 recording through online retailers and at her Laughtercising and HeyUgly Web sites, the latter dedicated to increasing self-esteem in teenagers. Sales are "picking up," she says. "It has just been word of mouth -- ha! ha!"

Jacki Kwan leads a therapeutic humor program for residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville. At left, Katie Namrevo says she shed weight by laughing vigorously, and turned her strategy into a book. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

Hoeffner breaks into a big raucous laugh as a spontaneous demonstration of proper technique. "You just keep going and going and you work up such a sweat and your abs are aching," she says. "You get so much energy you'll be vacuuming your house at 10 o'clock at night. Just try it!"

"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, who returned recently from taking 32 clowns, a third of them high school students on spring break, on a tsunami relief trip to Sri Lanka.

"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 in Arlington and West Virginia, 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."

Jacki Kwan, a Bethesda clinical social worker and laughter club leader, says if there's weight loss from laughing it's because people feel better about themselves. "If laughter would help you lose weight, then I would be very thin and I am not. But in conjunction with other things, exercise and eating right, yes."

Kwan leads her "Ha!Ha!logy" therapeutic humor program twice weekly with elderly residents at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville. The 15-to-30-minute sessions start with breathing exercises, move to "ho-ho-ha-ha-ha" chanting and clapping, then a closed-mouth humming laugh exercise and finally the open-mouth, tongue-out lion laugh.

"When they begin to focus on the physical exercise of laughing, people tend to forget what's wrong," says Kwan. "Laughter brings you into the moment where there is no pain, fear and anger -- only joy and love. The tendency is to feel better about who you are, which might lead someone to take better care of themselves and make better food choices and do exercise."

Science is finding that laughter alone produces biological benefits. A study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, presented last month to the American College of Cardiology's annual conference, showed that daily hearty laughing increases the flow of blood by expanding vessels constricted by stress.

William F. Fry, associate professor emeritus of clinical psychiatry at Stanford University, says "a belly laugh is internal jogging." He says 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," calculates Fry.

But how often do people laugh per day? "Far more than they realize," he says, adding that any kind of laughter sets the respiratory apparatus and its muscles into motion.

Which means even brown-nosers at work who laugh too hard and too long at the boss's jokes are getting healthier, if not getting ahead.

Other studies have found that laughter bolsters the immune system, regulates abnormal heartbeat related to stress, improves the respiratory system and relaxes muscle tension.

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