How Many Calories Do You Burn By Laughing?

By Gizmodo on at

By Peter Janiszewski on PLoS Blogs

I have been drawn to sketch comedy since my early teens. I religiously watched every episode of In Living Colour and Saturday Night Live (SNL) and subsequently tried to re-enact some of the scenes and characters with my friends. During high school, my friends and I would dream about being SNL writers when we grew up, spending many maths lessons giggling over some ridiculous sketch idea we came up with. As an adult, my obsession with Saturday Night Live has not waned. While I have tried (unsuccessfully) to get tickets to the live show for a number of years, the closest I've come to checking that item off my bucket list was during a tour of the SNL studio while on a recent NYC visit.

This summer, while travelling through Africa (and planning on reading literature more germane to where I was travelling), I got hooked on Live From New York, a highly detailed account of SNL's long history. In that voluminous book (760 pages) I learned that many of my favourite comedians who at one time or another graced the SNL stage, including the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey, honed their art at The Second City comedy club. As soon as we were back in Toronto, I enrolled myself into the improv comedy program at Second City.

I have been taking 3-hour classes with 18 other brave souls every weekend for the past month and a half. And it has been an absolute blast. On many occasions, I come home after class with my jaw sore from laughing so much. But I've also come home quite hungry and exhausted, which got me thinking: how many calories do we burn when busting a gut over something hilarious?

Thankfully, researchers have previously addressed this issue, in what must have been an absolute blast of a study to run and participate in.

Buchowski and colleagues from Vanderbilt University in Nashville recruited 31 males and 63 females aged 18–34 years to participate in the study. All participants were tested in friend pairs because laughter is far more likely to occur in social contexts and more likely to occur among friends than among strangers. The study was conducted in a whole-room indirect calorimeter (which measures the heat created by those inside) equipped with an acoustic recording system.

For 90 min, each pair viewed a series of film clips selected to evoke either a laughing response or a neutral response. The film clips aimed at evoking a neutral response included boring documentaries on England's landscape and the like.

So what did they find?

There was a significant increase in energy expenditure and heart rate when participants viewed film clips selected to evoke laughter. Specifically, on average, energy expenditure during laughter was 0.19 kcals/min higher while heart rate was 2.1 beats/min higher than at rest. Not surprisingly, individuals who were really enjoying themselves (and laughing for more than 20 seconds/minute) showed increases in caloric expenditure and heart rate of up 16-17% increase over resting.

Is this something to get excited about? Can you hope to lose weight through watching comedies or joining an improv class?

Unlikely.

For instance, if I assume the average surplus energy expenditure of laughter (0.19 kcal/min), I am burning a mere 34.2 extra kcals during my 3 hour class. That's just a few teaspoons of sugar.

Then why am I so tired and ravenous when I get home?

Well, improv comedy isn't easy. It requires immense focus for an extended period of time, and is mentally draining. As studies have previously shown, mental work (like writing a thesis or studying for an exam) can elevate hunger. This might be the explanation for my anecdotal observations.

Despite the meagre caloric benefits, I fully recommend that any of you with an interest in sketch or improv comedy take a stab at it. I promise you, you won't regret it.

This article is reproduced from PLoS Blogs under Creative Commons license. Image by Sarah under Creative Commons license.