I begin the workout with a smile, as instructed.
“Open your mouth and form a long ‘O’. Fold your upper lip over your front teeth. Smile again to lift those cheek muscles up!”
I’m attempting to do “the cheek lifter”. It’s one of 32 facial exercises that make up this so-called facial workout, also known as “face yoga”.
The exercise program, like others of its ilk, promises to “erase lines and wrinkles” and “restore a radiant, youthful look” to my face.
Despite the claims, the evidence for face yoga, like so many anti-ageing remedies, has been limited — until now.
In a study published this month in JAMA Dermatology, researchers at Northwestern University found that 20 weeks of facial exercises yielded firmer skin and fuller cheeks — resulting in a small group of middle-aged women appearing younger, on average, by three years.
“The exercises enlarge and strengthen the facial muscles, so the face becomes firmer, more toned, and shaped like a younger face,” said Murad Alam, vice chair and professor of dermatology at Northwestern University.
Professor Alam said facial exercises, pending further research, could become a “low cost, non-toxic” alternative (or additional) treatment to minimally invasive cosmetic surgery.
So how exactly does face yoga work?
Facial exercises strengthen muscles
Like any part of our body, our skin inevitably changes with age. It loses elasticity and volume, we accumulate fine lines and wrinkles, and skin that was smooth and tight becomes loose and sags.
The changes largely come down to the thinning of the fat pads that underlie our face, between the skin and muscles.
“The fat layer is comprised of these jigsaw-like fat pads that interlock and create the shape of the face. Over time, these become thinner and slide down, creating hollowness and loss of volume in the face,” Professor Alam said.
The idea behind facial exercising is to enlarge and strengthen the facial muscles, theoretically restoring facial volume and firming up facial contours.
Senior author Emily Poon explained: “If muscle underneath becomes bigger, the skin has more stuffing underneath it and the firmer muscle appears to make the shape of the face more full.”
Researchers train women to exercise their face
The researchers recruited 27 women between the ages of 40 and 65 who were interested in facial exercising.
The participants underwent two sets of 90-minute face-to-face training sessions with a facial exercise instructor, before continuing with the exercises at home for 20 weeks.
“The women did 32 exercises for 30 minutes each day for eight weeks … and then for the remainder of the 20 weeks, they did 30 minutes a day, every other day,” Professor Alam said.
Over the course of the research, 11 women dropped out, leaving 16 who finished the full program.
Women found to look three years younger
Each participant was photographed at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the study — at zero, eight and 20 weeks respectively.
The researchers asked two dermatologists (unknown to the women) to look at the photographs, assess their facial features against a standardised facial aging scale, and estimate their age at each of the three points.
“They didn’t know whether they were looking at a before, during or after photograph, and their assessment confirmed an improvement over time,” Professor Alam said.
The dermatologists found upper and lower cheek fullness had significantly improved over the 20 weeks, but observed little noticeable change elsewhere.
They also estimated the women to be younger at the end of the study, with average participant age decreasing from 50.8 years to 48.1 years.
“That’s almost a three-year decrease in age appearance over a 20-week period,” Professor Alam said.
The participants were also asked how they felt at the end of the study and reported high rates of satisfaction, noting improvements in almost all of their facial features.
Limited data so far
The study, while promising, was small, short-term and without a control group. Professor Alam said further research was required to investigate whether the findings could be generalised to other populations.
“This is one study, a small first step, and we need more studies, with large groups, and men as well,” he said.
“But I think at this preliminary stage we could say that for those patients who don’t want to receive minimally invasive cosmetic surgery, this could be an option.”
Melbourne dermatologist Rod Sinclair said the high number of drop-outs suggested the facial exercise program may be quite onerous, but that the study produced reasonable results nonetheless.
“If someone is motivated and they’re prepared to do [the exercise program], it’s not going to them any harm. It certainly could be worth a try for people who are contemplating fillers,” Professor Sinclair said.
The dermatologist added that people should approach face yoga with a “healthy degree of scepticism”.
And if you do plan on trying it, Professor Alam said you may want to begin in the privacy of your own home.
“You basically look ridiculous doing these exercises — so you probably don’t want to do them while you’re commuting.”