Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A chuckle a day keeps the doctor away

By Ann Marina
For the Redoubt Reporter

When Pat Porter conducts meetings at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center, everyone in the room starts laughing. Porter leads the center’s Laugh Club, which meets twice a week to practice stretching, breathing and laughter, the “best medicine,” as the old saying goes.

Not to be confused with Mayor Pat Porter, this Kenai resident with the same name is now retired from her job as Webmaster at the Peninsula Clarion.

Last year, Porter saw a news story on TV about the rising number of laughter clubs in the U.S.

“Something struck a note in me so I decided to start this club, to get adults laughing again,” she said.

Young kids usually laugh a few hundred times a day, while adults get maybe 15 hearty ha has, according to Barb Fisher, a laughter yoga instructor at the University of Michigan Health System.

“Laughter is a gift that has been given to us, to make us feel better,” Fisher said. “Children know this instinctively.”

Laughing produces the brain’s feel-good chemicals, which reduce pain and induce a pleasant feeling, Porter explained. It also improves circulation and strengthens the immune system.

“It’s a great health enhancer,” said Dorothy Howell, in between guffaws at a recent meeting. “Laughing exercises your lungs, and some people say it helps them ward off depression.”

Howell, 83, is a Kenai resident and senior center volunteer. She attends the Laugh Club meetings once a week.

“It gives a positive start to my day,” she said.

Laughter clubs started gaining momentum around 1995 in India, where people would gather in outdoor parks early in the morning. The practice is an offshoot of yoga, which also has roots in India, beginning centuries ago.

Laughter exercise soon appeared in other countries, gaining ground in fitness clubs, senior centers and health care facilities.

At Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna, 30-minute Laughter Yoga sessions are held once a week, said Camille Sorensen, marketing specialist, who is one of the group’s leaders. The certified “laughter leaders” underwent extensive training in order to lead the sessions, Sorensen said.

“As we age, our breathing may become more shallow,” Porter said. “So I wanted to have a group for seniors, to help us increase our lung capacity.”

Laugh Club members enjoy playful exercises, such as:

“Ho, ho! Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho! Ha, ha, ha,” the group calls out together, clapping to a steady beat. “Very good, very good — Ya-a-ay!”

Raising arms up high, they cheer themselves on.

Participants bend down to pick an imaginary flower, and then stand up again to take a deep breath and “smell the flower.”

“We do little skits, such as laughing with a friend on the phone, laughing at ourselves for making a mistake, or being elated over winning the lottery,” Porter said.

“I like the social aspect of it,” Howell said. “We make eye contact with everyone during the exercises.”

“This is ‘laughing for no reason’,” Porter said. “It works through the right brain, whereas laughing at a joke engages the left, or analytical side, of the brain.”

“At first, our ha-has are artificial, but within a minute or so, everyone is really laughing,” Porter said. “Eye contact helps to make it happen.”

“The good news is, the body can’t tell the difference between ’fake’ and ‘real’ laughter,” Sorensen said.

The Laugh Club meets Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 10:30, at the Kenai senior center.

“People of all ages are welcome,” Porter said. “You don’t have to be a senior.”

For more information, call LuAnn Barrett at the Kenai senior center, 283-4156, or Camille Sorensen at Central Peninsula Hospital, 714-4600, or e-mail csorensen@cpgh.org.

A wealth of information on laughter as exercise is available on the Internet. One popular Web site is: www.laughteryoga.org.

Ann Marina is a freelance writer and former central peninsula resident. She can be contacted at writerannak@yahoo.com.

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