Laughter may boost physical activity, mental health for seniors

When it comes to health in later life, researchers find laughter may really be the best medicine. A new study – led by Georgia State University – suggests combining laughter with moderate exercise may improve the mental health of older adults, as well as boost their motivation and ability to engage in physical activity.

Lead author Celeste Greene, from the Gerontology Institute at Georgia State, and colleagues report their findings in The Gerontologist.

It is well established that physical activity at any age is beneficial for health. For older adults, regular physical activity can boost heart health, aid weight control, reduce diabetes risk, improve bone health, and maintain and grow muscle strength.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults aged 65 years and older should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (such as jogging) every week.

Additionally, seniors should engage in muscle-strengthening activities – such as sit-ups or simply carrying heavy bags – at least 2 days a week.

However, a recent study from the CDC found that more than 1 in 4 adults in the United States aged 50 and older – the equivalent to around 31 million Americans – do not engage in regular exercise.


‘Putting the fun in fitness’ for older adults

Greene and team note that one major barrier to regular exercise for older adults is lack of motivation, largely due to low enjoyment of physical activity.

For their study, the researchers set out to investigate whether combining laughter with physical activity would boost exercise enjoyment for older adults, enabling them to reap the associated health benefits.

“We want to help older adults have a positive experience with exercise, so we developed a physical activity programme that specifically targets exercise enjoyment through laughter,” explains Greene.

“Laughter is an enjoyable activity and it carries with it so many health benefits, so we incorporated intentional laughter into this program to put the fun in fitness for older adults.”

The programme the researchers created is known as LaughActive. It incorporates moderate-intensity physical activity with simulated laughter techniques, whereby participants choose to laugh, without there being any humorous stimuli.

This simulated laughter initiates eye contact and playful behaviours with other participants, the team notes, which triggers genuine laughter.

The researchers explain that the body is unable to pinpoint the difference between simulated and genuine laughter, so either form offers health benefits.

Laughter boosted motivation to exercise

The team enrolled 27 older adults to their study, all of whom were residing in assisted living facilities.

As part of the LaughActive programme, the adults were required to attend two 45-minute sessions a week for 6 weeks.

These sessions included a workout routine involving strength, balance, and flexibility exercises, as well as eight to 10 laughing exercises, each lasting 30-60 seconds, which were typically performed after every two to four physical exercises.

All subjects completed questionnaires that assessed their perceived benefits of participating in the LaughActive program. Their mental health and aerobic endurance – that is, the ability to exercise for long periods without getting tired – were also assessed.

At the end of the 6-week programme, 96.2 percent of participants reported laughter as an enjoyable addition to physical activity, while 88.9 percent said they felt the laughter aspect of the programme helped increase exercise accessibility and made them want to continue.

Laughter boosted the motivation to take part in other exercise programs or activities for 88.9 percent of participants, the researchers report.

What is more, the LaughActive programme was associated with significant improvements in mental health and aerobic endurance among participants.

Based on their results, Greene and colleagues believe incorporating laughter with physical activity could be a good way to improve both the mental and physical health of older adults.

Furthermore, the team says such an approach may encourage older adults with functional or cognitive impairments to reap the health benefits of laughter; they point out that simulated laughter does not require cognitive skills to “get the joke,” because there is no joke to understand.

While their study findings show promise, the researchers point out that they are early results in a small number of participants, so further studies are needed to gain a better understanding of how laughter may benefit health.