Patients often come into my office asking, “How can I look younger?” While I always recommend healthy living — a balanced diet and regular exercise — in order to look and feel younger, I have never thought of facial exercises as part of that regimen. That is, until a recent study, published in JAMA Dermatology, showed promising results that routine facial exercise may slow the unrelenting tide of time.
Facial exercises: A fountain of youth for your face?
The rationale behind the study stems from the fact that a major part of facial aging is due to the loss of fat and soft tissue, which leads to sagging and exaggeration of wrinkles. If we can lift weights at the gym and enlarge our biceps, why couldn’t the same be done for muscles in our faces, thereby filling out those contours to create a more youthful countenance?
The concept of facial exercise is not a new one. A simple Internet search will produce a litany of blog posts and books on the subject, touting a variety of programs that promise to be the next fountain of youth. What the JAMA Dermatology researchers did in their study, which was the first of its kind, was to examine this question from a more rigorous scientific perspective. They enrolled 27 women between the ages of 40 and 65 to perform daily, 30-minute exercises for eight weeks, and then continue every other day for a total of 20 weeks.
Dermatologists who did not know the participants were asked to rate their photographs before and after the exercise regimen. The dermatologists found an improvement in cheek fullness and estimated the age of the participants at 51 years of age at the start of the program and 48 at the end of the 20-week study. Furthermore, all the participants felt improvement in their own facial appearance at the end of the study.
While these results seem exciting, the study has some obvious limitations. Of the 27 patients enrolled, 11 dropped out before completing the study. One reason may be that the program was too time-consuming, clocking in at 30 minutes a day. The overall small size of the study also limits its generalizability to the larger population. In addition, there was also no control group, meaning a group of participants who did no facial exercises, which would have helped minimize the possibility that this improvement occurred by chance.
It’s also hard to draw conclusions about the longevity of these results. Presumably the exercises must be continued to maintain their effects. But for how long? And how frequently? Which exercises are most fruitful? More studies are needed to address these questions.
Facial exercises may help, but sunscreen is tried and true
For those who are still skeptical but wish to try something more evidence-based to maintain youthfulness, I have one simple suggestion: use sunscreen. You may roll your eyes at the suggestion of sunscreen from a dermatologist, but there is an enormous body of research that demonstrates the sun’s role in prematurely aging our skin. You can protect your skin from these damaging effects by using broad-spectrum, SPF 30 or higher sunscreen daily, especially on the face. An analogy I often make is to think of a rug of in front of a window in your house. How does it look after five or 10 years? If the sun can fade an inanimate object to such a degree, think of what it can do to your skin.
As for facial exercises, the jury is still out. But unlike youth-preserving cosmetic procedures that require money and time for recovery, facial exercises are free and almost certainly not harmful. So why not try facial exercises if you have the time? If they don’t make you look younger, these goofy moves will, at the very least, make you smile.
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