Running on plenty

Mon, Oct 29, 2012, 00:00

A round-up of today's other stories in brief

Races of the week

We’re big fans of the Business Houses Athletic Association, which always has well-organised, well-priced and good-humoured events. The Cork branch has a road race on Sunday, the HSE 4 Mile, starting on the Marina. For details see corkbhaa.com. If you’re a regular runner, then membership of the BHAA is well worthwhile. For 2012, it was €10 and then €5 for each of the many races organised. Even for non-members, it’s excellent value at €8 a race.

Elsewhere on Saturday, the Glendalough Trail Run is a 15km trail run in aid of the Fighting Blindness charity. There’s a €25 entry fee, and minimum of €50 has to be raised for the charity, but it is a good challenge; and if the weather holds, it will be a good one to blow away any autumn blues. glendaloughtrail.com

Guffaws at the gym - study shows laughter may be the best exercise

IS LAUGHTER a kind of exercise? That offbeat question is at the heart of a new study of laughing and pain that emphasises how unexpectedly entwined our bodies and emotions can be.

For the study, which was published this year in the Royal Society’s Proceedings B ( rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org) , researchers at Oxford University recruited a large group of undergraduate men and women. They then set out to make their volunteers laugh.

Most of us probably think of laughter – if we think of it at all – as a response to something funny; in effect, an emotion. But laughter is fundamentally a physical action.

“Laughter involves the repeated, forceful exhalation of breath from the lungs,” says Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford, who led the study. “The muscles of the diaphragm have to work very hard.”

We’ve all heard the phrase “laugh until it hurts”. That pain isn’t metaphoric; prolonged laughing can be painful and exhausting. Rather like a difficult workout.

But does laughter elicit a physiological response similar to that of exercise and, if so, what might that reveal about the nature of exertion? To find out, Dr Dunbar and his colleagues had their volunteers watch, both alone and as part of a group, a series of short videos that were either comic or dryly factual.

But first, the volunteers submitted to a test of their pain threshold, as determined by how long they could tolerate a tightening blood pressure cuff or a frozen cooling sleeve.

The decision to introduce pain into this otherwise fun-loving study stems from one of the more well-established effects of strenuous exercise: that it causes the body to release endorphins, or natural opiates. Endorphins are known “to play a crucial role in the management of pain”, the study’s authors write, and, like other opiates, to induce a feeling of euphoric calm and well-being (they are believed to play a role in “runner’s high”).

It’s difficult to study endorphin production directly, however, since much of the action takes place within the working brain and requires a lumbar puncture to monitor, says Dr Dunbar. Few volunteers would willingly undergo such a procedure, and certainly not in a study about laughing. So instead, he and his colleagues turned to pain thresholds, an indirect but generally accepted marker of endorphin production. If someone’s pain threshold rises, one can surmise that they are awash with the natural analgesics.

In Dr Dunbar’s experiments, pain thresholds did go up after people watched the funny videos, but not after they viewed the factual documentaries.

The only difference between the two experiences was that, in one, people laughed, a physical reaction that the scientists quantified with audio monitors. They could hear their volunteers belly-laughing. Their abdominal muscles were contracting. Their endorphin levels were increasing in response, and both their pain thresholds and their general sense of amiable enjoyment were on the rise.

Why the interplay of endorphins and laughing should be of interest to those of us who exercise may not be immediately obvious. But, as Dr Dunbar points out, what happens during one type of physical exertion probably happens in others. Laughter is an intensely infectious activity. In this study, people laughed more readily and lustily when they watched the comic videos as a group than when they watched them individually, and their pain thresholds, concomitantly, rose higher after group viewing.

Something similar may happen when people exercise together, says Dr Dunbar. In an experiment in 2009, he and his colleagues studied a group of elite Oxford rowers, asking them to work out either on isolated rowing machines, separated from one another in a gym, or on a machine that simulated full, synchronised crew rowing. In that case, the rowers were exerting themselves in synchrony, as a united group.

After they exercised together, the rowers’ pain thresholds – and presumably their endorphin levels – were significantly higher than they had been at the start, but also higher than when they rowed alone.

So if you typically run or bike alone, perhaps consider finding a partner. Your endorphin response might rise and, at least theoretically, render that unpleasant final hill a bit less daunting. Or, if you prefer exercising alone, perhaps occasionally entertain yourself with a good joke.

Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times

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