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by John M. Leighty, SAN FRANCISCO (UPI)

    Laughter is an age-old elixir that modern healers should both practice and prescribe, a growing number of humor-oriented health professionals maintain. Throughout history, philosophers and writers have noted the benefits of humor on the sick. Arnold Glasow called laughter "a tranquilizer with no side effects." Voltaire wrote, "The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease." Philosopher Max Beerbohm noted, "Nobody ever died of laughter," while present-day scholar Norman Cousins says he was healed of a diagnosed "incurable disease" by the curative powers of hard laughing, which he dubbed an exercise akin to "internal jogging." Cousins, editor emeritus for Saturday Review, has attended several conferences touting the beneficial effects of humor. He says that although diagnosed with incurable ankylosing spondylitis, a disease that would make him an invalid, he was able to laugh himself into the pink by watching Marx Brothers movies and episodes of Candid Camera.
    Humor's assistance in modern medicine is no joke, says Dr. William Fry, a leading researcher into the psychology of laughter at Stanford University. He says the body gets a healthy "mini-workout" from a good guffaw. Fry says 20 seconds of intense laughter, even if faked, can quickly double the heart rate for three to five minutes, an accomplishment that would take three minutes of strenuous rowing exercise. Studies also show that muscles in the chest, abdomen, shoulders, neck, face and scalp get a beneficial workout and that other parts of the body are more relaxed during a laughing session.
    Interest in programs that jest for the health of it has increased significantly over the past few years, says Fry, a clinical psychiatrist who has been studying humor's effects on the body since 1952. In Los Angeles, a "humor wagon," makes weekly visits to hospitals to entertain children with cancer. Visualization and humor are employed to help cancer patients at the "Wellness Community" in Santa Monica, Calif., a program recently highlighted on CBS television's Sixty Minutes. Similar clinics are sprouting in other parts of the country. The Hospital Satellite network of Los Angeles has even created a television service specializing in humor for hospitals. Called "Patient America," the program beams classic comedies and other entertaining features to recovery rooms. "Patient America is interested in supporting the philosophy that laughter and comedy might enhance a patient's healing process," said Dr. Ronald J. Pion, the network's vice-president. "By combining these 'feel good' movies with wellness and health promotive programming, we think Patient America will augment our hospitals' total patient treatment programs."