The exercise mat is opening up more shared spaces than ever. And amidst the rush of adrenalin and sweat, a subtle fusion of ancient wisdom and modern science is brewing – ushering us to a healthy blend of laughing outbursts, group workouts and strength tests. Perhaps, childlike giggles, communal stretches and powering push-ups may be the way to go for the modern health enthusiasts.

1. Laughter yoga – an invitation to #LOL

In 1964, American journalist Norman Cousins was diagnosed with a degenerative disease and given a prognosis of six months. However, what took the medical world by surprise was that he outlived his given sentence – and he did it so by ‘laughing’.

Inspired by his findings, Dr Madan Kataria from Mumbai, India, carried out his own experiment in a local park in 1995. He noticed that people laughed even when the joke was not funny. It took just one person to start laughing to get the whole group laughing. The idea that laughing is contagious triggered him to experiment further with laughing for no reason, and it worked out well.

His wife Madhuri Kataria, a Hatha Yoga practitioner, incorporated breathing exercises to build upon the yoga connection of laughter. As people laughed on, laughing clubs grew and laughter yoga, with its focus on childlike spontaneity, became accepted as a form of therapy, akin to internal jogging, and easily accessible to the ordinary man.

Simple as it is, laughing and yoga are connected by just a deep breath, fake fights and lots of childlike giggles. No fancy movements or twists, no inhibitions and no fear. Instead, participants are given the freedom to express and to reconnect with their inner child.

The essence is to break down walls and just laugh or pretend to laugh until it becomes real. It usually begins with a staged scenario, for instance, getting mad at the person sitting next to you and then devolving into a cackling cacophony.

Though there has been no robust evidence that laughing helps boost immune functions, several observational studies have shown that laughter workouts can encourage physical activity and improve well-being among the elderly. It is also said to lower stress levels in children who are hospitalised.

The good thing about this therapy is that it comes with no price tag and no known risks. There are no pre-requisites like a sense of humour or a collection of jokes. All you need is the courage to laugh.

2. Group workout – a return to the communal

Working out with a group can be healthier than doing it solo.
Working out with a group can be healthier than doing it solo.

Exercise is no longer a solitary regime and new research shows that you may be healthier working out with a group. The study suggests that working out in a group setting lowers stress by 26% on average, compared to those who do it alone. The sense of togetherness makes people feel better about their physical well-being.

Led by Dayna Yorks from the University of New England College at Osteopathic Medicine, the research covered about 70 medical students – those who exercised in half-hour group fitness classes, those who worked out alone or with one or two partners, and those who did no exercise.

"The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone," remarked Yorks. "The findings support the concept of a mental, physical and emotional approach to health that is necessary for student doctors and physicians."

Andreas Bergdahl, Associate Professor in Cardiovascular Physiology at Concordia University, said there are physiological explanations behind this phenomenon. For example, group exercise unleashes a flood of chemicals in the brain, triggering the same responses seen in collective activities like dancing, laughter and religion.

"As such group exercise is a good match for people who are outgoing or looking to meet new people, who benefit from structure, who find solo exercise boring or who have difficulty maintaining motivation by themselves. In fact, peer support can be a great motivator, and can almost feel like group therapy."

3. Strength exercise – the power lies in the lift

Strength exercise is not confined to the gym; but can be done anywhere, while reaping the same health benefits.
Strength exercise is not confined to the gym; but can be done anywhere, while reaping the same health benefits.

There is no need to head for the gym or the ninja warrior studio when it comes to strength training, as recent research suggests that push-ups and lifting weights can add years to your life.

In an extensive observational study that compared the mortality outcomes of different types of exercise among 80,306 adults led by the University of Sydney, it was found that people who did strength-based exercise had a 23% reduction in risk of premature death by any means, and a 31% reduction in cancer-related death.

"The study shows exercise that promotes muscular strength may be just as important for health as aerobic activities like jogging or cycling… And assuming our findings reflect cause and effect relationships, it may be even more vital when it comes to reducing risk of death from cancer,” explained lead author, associate professor Emmanuel Stamatakis.

The analysis also showed exercises performed using one's own body weight without specific equipment were just as effective as gym-based training.

"Many people are intimidated by gyms, the costs or the culture they promote. So, it's great to know that anyone can do classic exercises like triceps dips, sit-ups, push-ups or lunges in their own home or local park and potentially reap the same health benefits," highlighted Stamatakis. MIMS

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