It's said that laughter is the best medicine.
For Carolyn Shannon, the sunny and warm health professional who leads “Laugh Yourself Healthier” classes on Friday afternoons at the Niagara-on-the-Lake community centre, it's not just a saying — it's a practice.
Some might find the idea of laughing for an hour a bit, well, laughable, but there is sound science in the physical health advantages of laughter, according to many sources, including Shannon, who says further health benefits include mitigating or even preventing dementia.
In her classes, she says she makes a point of waking up the lymph nodes and hitting acupressure points with a specific form of hand-clapping throughout the class.
While it's hard to argue the potential health benefits of laughter, a surprise side-effect is undoubtedly the joy that comes from feeling like a young uninhibited child again.
The class is held seated, and involves a series of gently physical exercises, most of them with a vocal component. There is genuine laughter, as well as the singing of popular songs using laughing sounds — “ho ho ho,” “ha ha ha,” and “hee hee hee” — and some repetitive, uplifting chants a bit like nursery rhymes.
There are many statements of positive reinforcement used throughout the class, which many of the women say they use throughout their day-to-day lives.
Gloria Messenger-Harman — who has been participating in these classes with Shannon for about eight years — says laughter gives people a “new language.”
“At first you feel silly, this is so childish,” she says. “And then you give yourself permission to be childish — and you also feel like you get a good workout.”
“If it’s imperfect it’s funny,” says Shannon. “And that’s a good thing.”
“I do versions of this program in assisted living facilities all over the region, and it’s amazing to see how enthusiastic the residents are about the classes, and how much they just shine during our time together. It touches my heart,” she says.
The weekly classes typically host between four and 10 participants, most of whom know each other from their years with the program.
Angie Domenegato attends her second class, and finds herself yawning frequently throughout.
“New students yawn a lot,” says Shannon. Not because they’re bored, but as a result of the dramatic increase in oxygen in their systems.
Shannon points out this program works well for people in NOTL because it can be done by those who are less able-bodied as well as those in their prime.
“It’s great for people who are recovering from all kinds of different things,” she says.
Messenger-Harman says, “I had a pacemaker inserted — after that I really felt like my head actually woke up during the class.”
As one of the faithful participants says, “Who doesn’t need more laughter in their life?”
Laugh Yourself Healthier classes are $20 for five sessions, and the drop-in rate is $10.