I am dancing the hokey cokey on Hampstead Heath with a giggling group of strangers and a man with a dog has stopped to watch the show. He is probably wondering what on earth is going on.
The dancing is part of something called laughter club. Its aim is to improve your physical and mental health through laughter — even if that laughter is actually fake. The premise may be weird, but it seems to work.
The exercises we are asked to laugh along to are a mix of mime and physical movement. Fortunately, they are so absurd that, for me at least, fake laughter was swiftly replaced by the real thing. My fellow participants, who range in age from a toddler to a woman in her 80s, seem equally affected.
Laughter clubs started in India in 1995, when a doctor and his yogi wife developed laughter yoga, a blend of yogic deep breathing, stretching, and laughter exercises meant to induce child-like play. The popularity of this type of yoga has continued to grow and now there are laughter clubs in over 100 countries and, like this session at the Parliament Hill bandstand, they are often free.
Renée Vincent, 87, a regular at the laughter club held each month on the Heath, says: ‘I am full of chronic pain, so I do it to relax and I hope that it will help with the pain.
‘Usually, if people don’t do it they think it is bizarre. No one can take it seriously, but I have a few friends who are psychologists and they understand.’
Catherine Keshishian, one of the laughter club session leaders, says that laughter produces endorphins and reduces your level of cortisol and other stress hormones. This, she argues, has a knock-on effect on the immune system, respiratory system, digestive health and emotional health.
‘I think it is innate that people know that laughter is the best medicine,’ she says.
It seems too simple, but there have been a surprising number of studies into the benefits of laughter as an additional treatment to conventional medicine.
For example, there is some good evidence that the act of laughing can reduce serious psychological distress. In a small study, in the US, patients who were waiting for organ transplantation were given 20 minutes of laughter yoga to see whether it would improve their psychological state and improve their heart rate variability, and by all accounts it did. (However, the researchers pointed out that the control method they used, a discussion with the patients about study-related topics, also helped to reduce long-term anxiety.)
More compelling evidence was reported by researchers looking at laughter yoga to relieve stress levels in 37 cancer patients before chemotherapy treatment in Iran. They used questionnaires to monitor stress levels and gave the experimental group 20 minutes of yoga therapy. They subsequently reported a significant reduction of stress these patients and the laughter yoga appeared to help.
In a paper published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Canadian Family Medicine, Dr William Strean suggests that although there may not be large randomised controlled trials to assess the benefits of laughter, the current evidence is enough to consider that, ‘along with eating your vegetables and getting enough sleep, laughter is a sound prescription as a wonderful way to enhance health’.
So, while we wait for more research to be done, consider laughing more, even if you happen to be laughing at a group of strangers dancing the hokey cokey.