June 10, 2005

No joke: Study finds laughing can burn calories

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The Marx Brothers were ahead of their time. A Vanderbilt researcher has found that laughter burns calories.

No joke: Study finds laughing can burn calories

Call it the laugh heard round the world.

At the European Congress on Obesity in Athens last week, VUMC’s Maciej Buchowski, Ph.D., reported weighty findings from a study he completed last year on how laughing — no joke — burns calories.

From the BBC to CNN, the Times of Oman to the Melbourne (Australia) Herald Sun, news outlets reported that people could laugh off pounds.

"This is a trivial study," Buchowski said later, about all the attention. As director of Bionutrition, he has certainly conducted scientific studies with more serious implications. But people take this news to heart. "People just understood this, it's something that they relate to themselves."

Seriously though, Buchowski found that laughing raises energy expenditure and increases heart rate 10 percent to 20 percent. Ten to 15 minutes of laughter could increase energy expenditure by 10 to 40 calories per day, which could translate into about four pounds a year.

"People can't eat at McDonald's and then expect to laugh away their lunch," Buchowski said. You'd have to laugh for 15 minutes to burn off two Hershey's Kisses and it would take an hour of chortles to burn one chocolate bar. But, he said, the important thing is that "every calorie counts" and every activity could help people lose weight. And, scientifically, this is one more step toward understanding how the body manages energy and burns fat.

Buchowski and senior research specialist Karen Majchrzak, M.S., put 45 pairs of friends and couples (because laughing's contagious), one pair at a time, in the whole-room calorimeter, a metabolic chamber in the General Clinical Research Center, and showed them a string of video clips, starting with serene sheep grazing in an English meadow to measure baseline energy expenditure. Then they watched parts of "Bill Cosby, Himself," "Saturday Night Live," "Austin Powers" and "Something About Mary."

"Some people didn't laugh at all," said Majchrzak, who watched and listened from an anteroom. That, however, lost its humor after viewing the same tape so often. "It was a job," she deadpanned.