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Can Face Yoga Make You Look Younger?
A guide to the facial exercise regimen that claims to combat the effects of aging
I’m sitting in front of my computer, squinting, hands on my cheeks, mouth agape. Slowly, I close my eyes, but the pressure from my fingers on my cheekbones makes the movement difficult. My eyes are dry as I open them again, still pulling slightly at the apples of my cheeks.
Nine more taxing blinks and I’ve completed one facial exercise: The Eye Bag Remover.
The Eye Bag Remover is one of the 18 core moves that make up Happy Face Yoga, a fitness regimen focused entirely on strengthening, lifting, and toning a very small piece of bodily real estate: your face. Other moves include the Face Lifter (make an exaggerated orgasm face while your arms reach toward the sky) and the Lion (with your eyes rolled back, open your mouth and stick your tongue out while sliding your index and middle fingers down your forehead as you raise your eyebrows).
Happy Face Yoga, developed 13 years ago by entrepreneur Gary Sikorski, is far from the only regimen available for facial exercise, a practice with roots dating back to ancient China. Yoga instructor Annelise Hagen developed the Yoga Face program and its accompanying book in 2005; there’s also the Face Yoga Method and Face Yoga With Koko, to name just two more. In Manhattan, there’s now a gym dedicated entirely to working out your face.
In addition to the seemingly perpetual interest in new ways to get younger-looking skin, Meghan Markle’s penchant for facial massages seems to have sparked a surge in curiosity about the facial exercise movement, Hagen and Sikorski say.
“They’re muscles just like any other. If you put resistance in the form of fingertip pressure and you do sets, you’ll see them lift and change.”
As we age, the fat in our face shifts down and decreases, creating loose, sagging skin and sunken features. Overuse of facial muscles cause creases in the skin — wrinkles. Just as working out strengthens and tightens the rest of your body, facial exercise, its proponents argue, can tighten and tone your face. “It brings all those things that help the face look more youthful back,” Sikorski says. “It helps to soften fine lines.”
This is the same notion that inspired Hagen. She realized there were 40-plus major facial muscles, “but there was this idea that they couldn’t be trained,” she says. “They’re muscles just like any other. If you put resistance in the form of fingertip pressure and you do sets, you’ll see them lift and change.”
While the research on facial exercises essentially boils down to one small study out of Northwestern University, published last year in the journal JAMA Dermatology, the results suggest there might be something to the idea.
Murad Alam, MD, lead author of the study and vice chair of the Department of Dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says he was aware that face yoga was a fad but couldn’t find any scientific literature on the subject. He reached out to Sikorski, who is listed as one of several co-authors on the study, to help lead two live 90-minute training sessions for female volunteers ages 40 to 65. After the initial lessons, participants were instructed to exercise their face for 30 minutes a day, using Sikorski’s Happy Face Yoga method, for eight weeks. (Northwestern, not Sikorski, paid for the study.)
For the next 12 weeks after that, the women tapered their workouts, practicing these exercises about three to four times per week. At the end of the 20 weeks, scientists showed other dermatologists photos of the participants and asked them to rate their age. On average, the raters estimated the women looked about three years younger at the end of the 20 weeks than they did at the beginning. The participants also self-reported “significant improvement” in most of their facial features.
While the study didn’t look deeply into why facial exercises might lead to these changes, Alam thinks they may strengthen and increase the size of the face muscles: “As the muscles grow,” he says, “they fill more space and make the face seem fuller,” filling out any loose skin and wrinkles in the process, especially in the cheeks. “It is as if the newly enlarged muscle is helping to reinflate the ‘deflated beach ball,’ which represents the aging face.”
Alam says he was surprised by the findings. “We thought some would like it and report benefits, and others not,” he says. “But in fact, almost all the patients reported seeing benefits, and so did the expert raters, who were blinded and hence not biased in any way.”
In addition to being small — only 16 women completed the full 20 weeks — the study didn’t follow up with participants to gauge the exercises’ long-lasting effects, if any. The authors also didn’t evaluate muscle growth with MRIs, says Anthony Rossi, MD, a dermatologic, cosmetic, and laser surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center who wasn’t affiliated with the study. “I don’t tell people to really take a lot of stock in it,” Rossi says. “If they want to do it, that’s fine. I don’t think it would hurt them. I don’t think it’s going to prevent a face-lift. We don’t know—we don’t have those longitudinal studies.”
Sikorski hopes to use Happy Face Yoga in other studies and says he’s talking with dermatologists and plastic surgeons to do that.
In the meantime, if you’re looking to get into the practice, it’s important to properly vet any programs, especially if you’re paying for them, Alam says. “Since facial exercise is not well studied, there is no standard body of knowledge or deep scientific understanding of the technique, and there is no formal licensing or credentialing of practitioners, it is difficult to ascertain who is a true expert.” He adds, “I wouldn’t pay a great deal for training, but to each their own.”
Just like any fitness regimen, face exercises require commitment. Sikorski recommends picking eight to 10 exercises and spending about 35 minutes a day working out for eight to 10 weeks or until you’ve fulfilled your desired look.
After that, he suggests doing the exercises three times a week for maintenance. “There’s no magic,” Sikorksi says. “You’ve got to put in the work.”