Why We Age Well with Facial Exercises Part 1

How Do Muscle Fiber, Connective Tissue and Facial Exercises Really Work to give you a More Youthful, Firm, Smooth-looking Face and Neck?

By Carolyn Cleaves

*I’ve been reading so much incorrect information about how the muscles and the underlying structure of the face allow for facial exercises to be effective, I thought I would write this series of rather “technical” articles for those of us who would like to understand why facial exercises truly are effective in giving anyone using them a younger, smoother and firmer face and neck. This is Part I of a series of articles written to rectify myth and reality.

To start. The issue of what happens to skeletal muscle (that’s the type of muscle you mostly have in the face) is complex, because muscle is a complicated entity. So, here are some basics:

Muscle Fibers – What are they and what happens to them as we age, etc…

As we age, our muscle fiber in our bodies tends to atrophy and become less with time. As far as muscle shrinkage (atrophy) is concerned, it’s debatable whether loss of fibers from individual muscle cells or loss of cells themselves is the important issue. What is atrophy? In fact, what is a muscle cell? Atrophy means the bulk of the muscle is lost. In other words, the term is a “universal” one. It encompasses our experience when we lose muscle. It does not, however address what is happening on a “cellular” level. And, it is what happens on a cellular level that helps us to understand how and why exercising the face can bring not only a younger look but a healthier one, too.

Secondly, the term fiber is used in different ways. It depends upon whether one is talking about muscle cells or “extracellular” fibers. Not to worry.  All this will become clear as you read through this article. To start with this somewhat complicated topic, here are some pictures of skeletal muscle:

Skeletal Muscle Image
Photo #1
Skeletal Muscle Image 2
Photo #2

The left image, photo #1 is more magnified. The dark (or purplish) dots are nuclei, which give scale to the image. Notice how little white spaces appears in the image. These are called adipocytes – they are fat cells. The subcutaneous layer of fat in the face tends to diminish as we age. Having this fat is a significant factor in what gives us a firm-looking face when we’re young. As we age, this loss of fat and its distribution changes the way we look. Our faces tend to sag as we age as the muscles atrophy with time gone by.

And here’s a muscle that’s atrophied:

Atrophied Muscle Image
Photo #3

Notice in this image the greater amount of white space, some of which again are fat cells (adipocytes).  Notice how they are dispersed in the healthy muscle fiber (Photo # 1) and in this atrophied muscle fiber in photo #3. The cause of atrophy in this case is nerve interruption (essentially what happens when someone uses Botox®!).

First off, it’s important to clarify what is meant by “fiber” when we are talking about muscle.

Fully-formed muscle cells ARE fibers. And they contain fibers. . . AND, they have fibers around them. Gee … too many “fibers” …!

Muscle cells do something many other cells don’t do – they fuse.

What results is called a syncytium. This literally means “same cell”. The fused collective of muscle cells which actually are myoblasts or muscle stem cells, is called in common parlance, a muscle fiber. In other words, what we call a muscle fiber is actually a bunch of “fused” muscles cells, all in one.

Muscle fibers are relatively big and particularly, they are long.

All cells have a nucleus. These can be easily seen in photo #4. This is where the DNA resides. This nucleus “lives”, more or less, in the middle of the cell. Muscle syncytium – a muscle fiber – contains lots of cell nuclei but these congregate around the edge of the syncytium (er, fiber). You can see that in the images above and you can see this very well in photo #4. Therefore, you can then judge the size of the muscle fiber since the nuclei are roughly the same size in every cell in the body. They are very small, indeed when looking at them from our perspective. As well, you can also get a sense of how many cells have merged to make that fiber. Impressive, yes? Here’s a nicer picture that shows some of these features:

Muscle Fiber Image
Photo #4

Since this is a typical cross-section you can imagine there are nuclei (the dark spots) all along the length of each muscle fiber.

That means literally hundreds of cells fuse to make one muscle fiber.

In photo #4, the nuclei in the lower left corner are in individual non-muscle cells making a capillary (a blood vessel) and some fibrous tissue, which can also be seen that are supporting that capillary. Yes, the body is quite complicated (and striking) on this scale.

These pictures above show that the muscle fiber appears to get smaller and also shows that there are fewer of these fibers when atrophy occurs.

Now, how about the relationship between muscle fibers as we’ve discussed and elastic fibers? I’ve heard a lot about these especially in skin care product advertisements. How are they related? So the question is …

Does any of this have to do with elastic fibers?

The short answer is “NO!”  Why?

Because elastic fibers reside OUTSIDE the muscle fibers.

Again, the term “muscle fiber” and/or the term “elastic tissue” is a bit misleading. Basically the term “elastic tissue”  gets used for tissues that have more than average stretch-ability. And why does a tissue have stretch-ability? In part because of the elastic fibers. Wikipedia has a simple graphic that shows this:

Elastic Fibers Image
Photo #5

You’ll notice the cells are separate from the elastic fibers (“fibres” – the source is British) and there are no muscle cells at all in this picture. How much elastic fibers exist in a tissue defines whether it is elastic or not. Things that stretch (like the lungs) have lots, and organs and other tissues that don’t, have little.

Because these fibers are essentially chemical, they are responsive only to chemical effects.

These include most importantly oxidation (smoking is a particularly effective cause of this, and sun exposure also can chemically damage these fibers) which damages these fibers and makes them “unstretchable”. And as the image above shows, they are delicate, so if you stretch an unstretchable one, it breaks. End of story. No more elasticity at that spot.

Well, not quite

The body does continue to make the proteins that form elastic fibers. Like everything else, this synthesis is most robust when we are young and growing, and when we do this in our older years, the fibers that form then, support the shape we are in – at the time they form. Hence, we sag as we age. Ah, now you have an excuse! However, since the “elastic fibers” take on the shape around them as they form, there is a “rescue” plan.

Facial Exercises Can Help Regain that Look of Youth

How does all this fit in with any sort of fitness program, especially facial exercise?

  • First off, exercise and likely other factors (like the amount of vitamin A in the tissue?) can enhance the production of elastic fibers.
  • Secondly exercise does improve muscle tone and therefore firms the face. That means it holds the tissues in a position that you might prefer so when the body does produce new “elastic fibers” and these elastic fibers take on the shape around them, a more youthful look can be achieved. In other words, your face can look firmer and more youthful as you age if you exercise the face properly.
  • Thirdly, facial exercise keeps the face well oxygenated, and that turns out to lessen oxidation injury (yes, it doesn’t seem to make sense at first glance, but that’s the way the chemistry works.  – the explanation is complex. Read about free-radical damage and anti-oxidants here …).

Therefore, muscle does not create elastic fibers, but since newly formed elastic fibers that form around muscle fiber take the shape of what’s around them, if you tone the muscles of the face you will create a framework for the newly made elastic fibers that gives your face and neck a firmer and smoother shape.

In conclusion, while muscle and elastin are two separate entities, the way they build in the face influences how you look.  Furthermore, you can influence that look with facial exercises.

Note: muscles begin to lose protein from disuse, hormonal effects (insufficient testosterone and growth hormone, among others), and denervation (Botox® does this).  See photo #4. But, there is hope.

You can reverse the sagging face through exercise

Those pictures above show what atrophy of the muscles in the face really looks like, and while it does seem accurate to claim the fibers lose protein (that’s their main component), it seems just as accurate to point out the number of fibers is reduced.

One student training site offered this definition of disuse atrophy (the type most relevant to people who haven’t had Botox®):

“(Atrophy) occurs with diminishing workload – skeletal (includes facial) muscle will undergo disuse atrophy with decreased demand [to be used] – atrophic cells will contain fewer myofibrils and mitochondria (so they are smaller) … a reversible condition that will rectify with increased demand (eg, use) – if demand is not reintroduced atrophy may progress to cell death (and) loss of muscle …”   http://www.flashcardmachine.com/histology.html

In other words, if you don’t use the muscles of the face, the muscles can atrophy. And atrophy may result in cell death and further loss of muscle. Paralyzing the muscle and  using substances like Botox® may allow the skin to look less wrinkled because of lack of movement, but it may eventually lead to cell death through atrophy, as well … meaning you can end up with hanging, saggy skin more or less stretched over your facial skeleton because of muscle fiber loss. But, as the quote says, you can reverse this condition through exercise.

When a muscle is atrophied, there is no talk about elastic fibers. I often read that muscle atrophy is responsible for loss of elastin in the skin. As mentioned above, the elastic components are separate physically and chemically from the muscle cells. Although, working the muscle does improve tissue nutrition and so elastic fiber production will likely increase, the idea that with muscle use a “demand” happens for elastic fibers to build, suggests it is linked to some (chemical or electrical) signal sent from muscle fibers.  To my knowledge this isn’t true; there is no tissue-level relationship of that sort.

It should be noted, the breakdown of elastic fiber occurs all the time once we are adults. This is even more so with oxidative and inflammatory damage. We’ve all heard about “free radicals” and how they play their part in this scenario. In the face, light injury certainly contributes too, but stiffness does not come about from disuse – it comes from oxidation. As you may now understand, the elastic fibers are not alive in the way cells are; they really are chemical fibers. They do become rigid, from oxidation (they cross link and lose their stretch). It’s all chemistry. “Use” is a different issue with different effects. But remember, we are also building new elastic fibers all the time and with facial exercises we can have firmer faces as these elastic fibers take on the shape of the newly toned muscles.

Building muscle does not increase the subcutaneous fat

Subcutaneous fat is distributed according to genetics, hormonal influences (take some steroids if you want to learn about this quickly, and destructively; so don’t do this at home!), nutrition, and drug effects (non-hormones).

Where fat is stored does influence its vulnerability to these influences, but the location of fat only determines its vulnerability on a regional level (different body regions behave differently). Fat is always in cells. The adipocyte carries fat, whether it is in muscle, the subcutaneous area of the face, or your belly. To be clear, even in muscle, fat is in its own cell and that has its own influences. Therefore, building muscle does not increase the subcutaneous fat. If that were true all those body builders would be quite rolly-polly!

Bones of the skull are flat bones.

Only weight supporting bones are responsive to muscular forces. The flat bones of the body are largely unresponsive to muscle tugs and other forces (percussive forces, for instance). The face and skull are categorized as flat bones. The bones of the extremities are responsive to muscle activity, and more so to percussive and gravity forces. Meaning, the bones of the body can become stronger and change shape through exercise. For the face, it’s a different story. One reason the forensic pathologists can often reconstruct a person’s face from their skull is that the tissues of the face don’t alter the skull and face bones. Therefore, they are categorized as “flat bones”.  In other words, you do not lose bone mass (so to speak) in the skull as you do in the body. Facial exercises cannot “challenge” the bones of the face as exercise can challenge the bones in the rest of the body. A different approach is needed.

Recent studies from the medical journal of “Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery” suggests that as we reach middle age and beyond, there is some bone atrophy around the eye sockets and along the jaw line.  I was wondering about this as I notice at age 65 that not only do I have nicely filled-in tear troughs, but a very strong jaw line, as well.  This has given me a very elegant look to my facial build and a youthful one as well. I have to ask the question why?

My personal opinion is when you exercise the face, you are not only building muscle fiber and rejuvenating connective tissue, you are also revitalizing the bone.  For example, with CFFitness™ you are contracting the muscles first and then sliding across the skin.  This technique was developed by Dr. Frederick Rossiter, M.D., who used to teach in a medical college in Pennsylvania, back in the mid-seventies.  He wrote a book, “Face Culture” and talks about this technique in his book.  He claims that because the muscles go through the skin, allowing us to show facial expression, if you make the muscle in contraction and slide across the skin, you not only build muscle fiber, but you also lift the skin with the newly toned (more dense) muscle.

Since we now know that exercise is one of the best things you can do to build and restore loss muscle fiber in the face,  it appears that this pressure one exerts using this technique in the CFFitness™ system must also be building and restoring bone mass as well.  This would make sense. As you slide across the skin, you exert pressure along the skeletal bones of the face especially around the jaw line, the orbital eye sockets and the mouth as well as the cheeks. This pressure challenges the bones of the face so that they are not only rejuvenated but healthier as well.

In Conclusion the shape of the face becomes firmer as the muscle fiber builds and elastic fibers take the shape of the newly toned muscles

As you can now understand, the structure of the face is a bit different from the rest of the body. The muscle, elastic fiber and connective tissue, including the subcutaneous layer of fat are rather intertwined in the face. The bones of the skull are flat bones and cannot be challenged with facial exercises in the same way as can the rest of the body. For example, you can challenge bones in bodybuilding by lifting weights but you cannot restore the bones in the face in the same way. In fact, there are several points to our advantage when we exercise the face and this is why:

  • Facial exercises improve muscle tone and help to restore the integrity of the bones in the face when pressure is applied correctly
  • Exercising the muscles does not create elastic fibers but using them does improve circulation that brings more nutrients to the surrounding tissue. This, as well, creates a climate for elastic fibers to thrive
  • While elastic fibers once stretched can break and not repair, the body is making and therefore replenishing new elastic fibers all the time
  • The body does continue to make the proteins that form elastic fibers
  • Newly formed elastic fibers support the shape we are in … at the time they form – which means, if your face and neck are toned and in good shape, the newly made elastic fibers will take that preferably firmer, smoother and younger looking form as they grow
  • Therefore you age well with facial exercises … always looking a little bit younger and firmer as time goes on.

With Carolyn’s Facial Fitness™, facial exercise system you will have “youth jumps”.  That is every three months or so you look a little bit younger than you did before.  These “youth jumps” go on for the first few years of using the program. Yes!  Years.  And then these jumps seem to get further apart, but they do continue. One of the reasons for this is obvious now.  The constant exercising of the muscles and surrounding connective tissue of the face and neck are being supported by newly formed elastic fibers along with the newly toned and tighter-looking muscles. Your face literally gets firmer, tighter and fitter looking over time.

* With the consultation of Richard H Tew, M.D., Harvard graduate, General Practitioner, Integrated Medicine.