I Did Ridiculous Face Exercises in an Attempt to Look Younger
Could 'Exorcist'-like facial contortions really shave years off my appearance?
Carole Maggio’s Facercise. The first time I saw a copy of this book was at my friend’s apartment a little over a decade ago. When I asked him what had possessed him to buy it, he began to summarize the book’s central premise: that there are 42 muscles in the face and, just like any other muscle in the body, they can be developed and toned via programmed exercise to impart a tauter and more youthful appearance. He then proceeded to run through a circuit of 'Exorcist'-looking facial contortions inviting me to follow along, which I gamely did.
“I don’t do it religiously but I do it when I remember to and I think it’s helping,” he said, once his roaming facial features settled. He offered to lend me his well-thumbed copy.
I took it home and returned it a few weeks later without giving it much of a look. That’s partly because I was 30 and aging wasn’t something I was concerned about yet. It was also partly because my friend’s apartment was—and is currently—choked with gadgets, gizmos, and devices of varying wackiness that he purchased online, late at night, often after the ingestion of enough marijuana to fell a rhinoceros.
He has headgear to measure his considerable and untamed brain waves, a neti pot, a state-of-the-art water filtration system, Indian Clubs for body conditioning, baskets of myofascial release balls and foam rollers, rolls of yijing coins, a VR headset, and many more items of dubious utility. The book, I’d assumed, was more of the same benign midnight madness.
Fast forward ten years however, and homeboy is looking conspicuously fresh for a guy who, like me, is halfway along the path to oblivion. This led me to start going through his various dotty behaviors to see if I could benefit in a similar way. Had his use of the neti pot successfully flushed wrinkle-producing gunk from his sinuses? Had the yijing helped him avoid making a decision that would have led to undue stress that tends to leave its mark on the face and body? Had drinking non-fluoridated water stymied the government’s nefarious plan to prevent tooth decay with the added benefit of stoking his chi?
I deduced that Facercise was the intervention that best held up to scrutiny. After digesting a new academic paper that gave facial exercises some backing, I made a late night, though clear-headed Amazon purchase of my own.
The study that finally pushed me over the edge was from Northwestern Medicine—not an institution with a reputation for being particularly “woo woo.” Researchers recruited 27-, and 40- to 65-year-old women to undergo two 90-minute training sessions from a facial exercise instructor. Sixteen of them continued to do all of the 32 distinct exercises for a total of 20 weeks at home. For weeks one through eight, they did the exercises daily for 30 minutes. From nine to 20 weeks, they did the same exercises every other day for 30 minutes a session.
Then, using something called the Merz-Carruthers Facial Aging Photo Scales, dermatologists were asked to rate pictures taken at the beginning, at eight weeks, and at the end of the 20-week experiment, blind to the pictures’ chronology. These grown up mean girls and boys found that upper cheek and lower cheek fullness was significantly enhanced as a result of the exercises. What’s more, the estimated age of the average patient decreased over the course of the study. It started at 50.8 years, dropped to 49.6 years at eight weeks and then to 48.1 years at 20 weeks of concerted face-making. An almost three-year decrease in age appearance over a 20-week period! I quickly calculated that, at that rate, I could look 17 again in just four years time. If I stick to it just a little harder, I could be refused entry to a screening of 'Sausage Party 2,' should it ever be made.
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I excitedly skim the book’s 50-page preamble and dive right into the syllabus’ modules; The Cheek Developer; The Nose Shortener; The Lip Shaper and; The Jaw Strengthener. Now, supposing that you’d never seen it done, imagine trying to learn how to perform a Burpee, a single-leg deadlift or the schmoney dance with only a short, idiosyncratically worded paragraph and just one soft-focused picture in a tatty, 23-year-old book to go from. Sure, there’s a chance that you could do it correctly, but there, alone in your living room, a part of you will always be thinking, “this can’t be right, can it?”
That doubt sapped my willingness to spend 30 minutes a day working my face into all kinds of demonic expressions. I was pretty much ready to give up and accept having a face like an old slapped ass when I noticed that Carole Maggio, the book’s 72-year-old author offers face-to-face lessons over Skype.
Via email, Carole and I set a date to pull some faces at each other and within a week, we’re video chatting. Carole gets right into it, giving me instructions to record myself for future use. “That’s a very old book you have there,” she says when I hold up the book to demonstrate that I’ve tried to do it solo. “I’ve developed many more exercises since then.”
She then holds up her phone to show me the before and after picture of a Daily Mail correspondent who had recently gone through the latest iteration of her regimen. I’d read the article before so I didn’t need to mention it when Carole only manages to get a small corner of the evidential picture in front of her webcam. Despite her attempts to remain ageless, this classic oldster move betrays her efforts.
Carole then goes on a mini-tangent about how a book she wrote that was aimed at a male audience—“Facebuilder For Men”—didn’t do as well as she’d hoped in the US though did find a large audience in the Far East. “Y’know the Japanese are just so smart,” she explains.
Carole, who I find endearingly old-school, glam-batty in a Jane-Fonda-meets-Jackie-Stallone kind of a way, goes on to tell me that we’ll be doing each of the exercises twice. “By the time you do it a second time, I’ll have corrected your form and you’ll get it right,” she explains. “We don’t need you video taping yourself doing it incorrectly. That’d be a waste of time now wouldn’t it?”
We end up going through several exercises twice. We skip some because: "you’re too young to have a saggy neck” and “you don’t need a slimmer face—you need a wider face.” An extra anti-aging tip she imparts is to do something about my skin which, even via Skype, apparently reads as oily. “Oily skin is heavy on the face and is making you look older,” she says.
We contract our facial muscles while she counts. This is the starkest contrast from when I attempted the exercises solo. In the book she simply says “count to forty” which I took to mean 40 Mississippis. Carole’s 40 counts are over in about eight seconds flat.
At the end of each set she says “blow your horn” meaning push air through my loosened lips to remove the intense ache that manifests in the muscles I’m working. “C’mon now, blow your horn,” she says for the tenth time.
It’s all over in 25 minutes or so and I now have a self-made video tutorial to show for it. I thank Carole and dutifully put Facercise to my calendar for the week ahead, scheduling it for 9 am each morning. This time slot is shortly after I wake up and allows me to exercise my face while drinking coffee, trying to relieve a nuisance neck pain with an inflatable traction collar and—in the name of an upcoming Yes Man episode—stretching my penis to see if I can achieve a permanent size increase. To the casual observer, mornings at my place would appear strange.
I perform the 30-minute regimen for the next few days and, while doing it, belatedly decide to have a poke around the internet to see if other physicians have weighed in on the efficacy of facial exercises at making you look younger. I start a correspondence with Boston-based plastic surgeon Jeffrey Spiegel who has few kind words to offer on the regimen.
He dismisses the aforementioned study on the grounds that the sample size was small and, according to Spiegel, biased, as “a co-author has a financial interest in the outcome.”
“We know that botulinum [Botox/Dysport] treatments make you look better,” he says explaining that they both relax and make facial muscles smaller...Do you see? This is the opposite of making the muscles bigger. Making the muscles stronger will increase wrinkles. This will make you look less good.” As far as Spiegel is concerned, the face gets enough exercise via normal expression, chewing, and speaking, and maintains that while our bodies need more exercise as many of us have sedentary jobs and lives, very few of us, are completely expressionless.
“Modern people are not stoic and blank faced compared to our ancient ancestors,” he says adding that the primary result of excessive facial exercise will be to look older, more masculine, and less attractive. “And, for anyone who chooses to follow these exercises, keep my contact information. I'll help you undo the damage.”
As he says this, I’m immediately reminded of the famous Upton Sinclair quote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Consequently, I took what Spiegel had to say with a temporary pinch of salt while looking elsewhere for the truth.
Shilpi Khetarpal, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic, has a less strident view on the study, though largely agreed with Spiegel. Her first concern regarding the usefulness of Facercise is a basic one and regards adherence to the program.
“This was a highly motivated group of middle-aged women, who were willing to do 30-minute facial exercises daily or every other day,” she says. “Unless someone is highly motivated, it can be hard to sustain these facial exercises over a long period of time. It would be interesting to see how long the results of these facial exercises lasted once the patients stopped performing them.”
Another concern she harbored was that while some facial features would aesthetically benefit from a battery of exercises, some would not. “For muscles of the lower face, as this study showed, it can lead to fullness of the mid-face which makes the patients appear younger,” she says, cautioning that, for muscles in the upper face such as the the frontalis (forehead muscle), glabellar complex ('11' lines) and orbicularis oris (crow's feet), repeated use and contraction can causes these lines to become more deeply etched leading to a more aged appearance.
Before I caused myself some undue damage, I thought it only fair to begin a correspondence with Murad Alam—the study’s lead author. I was surprised to find that even Alam wanted to draw a distinction between the study’s findings and the splashy nuance-lite headlines they spawned.
“Put simply, there is a good chance that facial exercises can be helpful in improving mid-face volume loss in some patients, but this doesn't mean that they can replace a face lift or neck lift, or fillers and neuromodulators, or laser resurfacing,” he says adding that dermatologists and plastic surgeons are experts in facial rejuvenation who can offer patients many highly effective, extremely safe procedures that can dramatically improve facial appearance. “These procedures provide a greater degree of improvement than facial exercises, and can certainly improve a greater range of facial features than facial exercises. Still, facial exercises may be used in combination with dermatologic procedures to possibly augment the overall result.”
So essentially, any improvements I’d see would be slight and confined to my mid/lower face. I could possibly deepen the deepening crevices on my forehead. And any improvements would pale in comparison to what a plastic surgeon could do for me in 25 minutes. The amount of hedging the study's lead author used when describing facial exercise’s efficacy urged me to tuck Carole’s book away and begin looking at the next most feasible items my friend swears by.
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