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Middle-aged women who exercised their facial muscles on a regular basis showed improved muscle tone and appeared younger to professional dermatologists.

Credit: Northwestern University

It isn't often we get to enjoy the term Happy Cheeks Sculpting in our science news stories, so let's all take a moment to savor the phrase....

Now, then: A new study out of Northwestern University concludes that a regular regimen of facial exercises, sometimes called face yoga, can make middle-aged women look years younger — within a matter of weeks.

That's the kind of bold claim you usually see in online ads with unfortunate font choices. But this time researchers have cold, hard science to back it all up. Using standardized methodology, the research team has delivered evidence, for the first time, that facial exercises really can work.

The study was published the journal JAMA Dermatology.

In a series of experiments at Northwestern Medicine, a volunteer group of 27 middle-aged women — aged 40 to 65 years old — participated in a 20-week regimen of specified facial exercises. The program required 30 minutes of exercises for eight weeks, then another 12 weeks of exercising every other day.

The facial exercises themselves may sound a bit imprecise — besides Happy Cheeks Sculpting, we have the Temple Developer and the Neck Firmer – but each exercise provided detailed instructions to the participants. For instance, the Happy Cheeks Sculpting technique reads: “Smile without showing teeth, purse lips together, smile forcing cheek muscles up, place fingers on corners of the mouth and slide them up to the top of the cheeks, hold for 20 seconds.”

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Digital photographs taken before, during, and after the experiment showed that muscle tone in the cheeks improved noticeably over the course of the experiment. A panel of dermatologists assessed the photos using a standardized dermatology aging scale, in which 19 separate features of the face are measured and compared.

The researchers concluded that upper cheek and lower cheek fullness, in particular, were significantly enhanced by the exercises. What's more, when dermatologists were asked to guess the ages of the participants, the average apparent age decreased over the course of the study, from 50.8 years to 49.6 years at eight weeks, then to 48.1 years at 20 weeks.

Lead author Dr. Murad Alam, vice chair of dermatology at Northwestern Medicine, said that previous to the new research, there had never been a dedicated scientific study to test the premise that facial exercises improve appearance.

"Now there is some evidence that facial exercises may improve facial appearance and reduce some visible signs of aging,” Murad said in a statement issued with the new research. "The exercises enlarge and strengthen the facial muscles, so the face becomes firmer and more toned and shaped like a younger face.”

“Assuming the findings are confirmed in a larger study, individuals now have a low-cost, non-toxic way for looking younger or to augment other cosmetic or anti-aging treatments they may be seeking,” Alam added.

Researchers can't say for sure why the exercises seem to be effective, but they have some strong suspicions. Skin loses elasticity as we age, largely because fat pads between the muscles and the skin become thinner. In youth, these fat pads lock together like puzzle pieces, but as they age and atrophy, they tend to slip and descend. It really is just gravity at work.

“But 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,” said Emily Poon, senior study author and assistant research professor in dermatology, in a statement. “Muscle growth is increasing the facial volume and counteracting the effects of age-related fat thinning and skin loosening.”

RELATED: ‘Exercise in a Pill’ Could Boost Endurance Without the Need for Training

Of the 27 participants initially recruited for the study, 16 completed the exercises for the entire duration of the experiment. Researchers concede that the small sample size makes it a relatively limited study, and more research is needed to determine whether the results could be applied to other demographics — younger women, or older women, or men.

The facial exercises used in the study were developed by Gary Sikorski of Happy Face Yoga, who is also a coauthor on the study. If you're interested in a little citizen science at home, links to instructions on the individual exercises are provided at the Northwestern Now website.



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