Photography Dan Forbes
By Kimberly Goad
It’s often said that as you get older you have to decide between being fit and firm or maintaining a youthful-looking face,since slimness and cherubic features don’t often coincide.
A Women's Health online poll found that you’re divided on the issue: 50 per cent of you said you’d choose a pert rear, while the other half opted for a fresh dial.
But we reckon you deserve to have it both ways, so we’ve challenged this conventional wisdom to find out if you can become the perfect all-rounder.
“After a certain age you have to choose between your fanny and your face.” So said French actress Catherine Deneuve. Of course, by fanny she meant bum, and by choose she meant this: many of the things you do in the name of staying in shape – watching your portion sizes, tallying fat grams, logging hours at the gym – begin to do a number on your face as you close in on 40.
You start to lose facial volume, which can cause your eyes to look slightly sunken, your cheeks to hollow out, and your skin to lose its firmness and elasticity. Maintaining a low body mass index (BMI) exacerbates the problem because fat is the very thing that helps plump out lines and wrinkles.
All of which leaves women with a rather unappealing choice: carry an extra five kilograms to keep your face looking youthful, or keep your weight down and wear an extra five-plus years on your face.
But do you have to compromise? Or is there a way to have both your face and your arse fight gravity? We turned to experts in the fields of dermatology, nutrition and exercise physiology to find out.
FACING THE MUSIC
As early as your mid 20s, faint creases start to appear on your face – usually across your brow and around your eyes. In your mid-30s, those creases kick off their shoes and make themselves at home, settling in as fully fledged lines.
Soon after, crow’s feet and smile lines join the party, and the dreaded 11s hit you where it hurts: right between the eyes. As you lose volume in the upper part of your face, the lower part starts to sag. And this is exacerbated if you’re watching your figure.
“Weight loss often shows in the face first,” says Dr Catherine Reid, Women's Health dermatology advisor. “A loss of fat pads under the eyes and then in the cheeks occurs.”
At the same time, gravity comes into play, and the elastin and collagen fibres that allow skin to stretch and spring back weaken, causing skin to sag. Tending to all of these changes can feel like weeding your backyard vegetable patch – as soon as one problem is addressed, another one shoots up in its place.
“To maintain youthfulness, the human face needs fullness,” explains plastic surgeon Dr Rod Rohrich.
And by fullness he means fat – whether it gets there the old-fashioned way (via cake) or with the help of a dermatologist (via fillers).
In 2007, Dr Rohrich led a ground-breaking study at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, US, that shed light on just how important fat is for the face.
Prior to his research, skincare experts believed that subcutaneous facial fat (the fat just below the surface of the skin) was one confluent mass that aged at the same rate.
Dr Rohrich and his team discovered that the face is made up of 21 individual fat compartments, each of which ages at a different pace. Imagine your face as a three-dimensional puzzle, with fat divided into distinct units around the forehead, eyes, cheeks and mouth. The way your face ages is at least partially characterised by how these separate compartments evolve as you grow older. Staying too thin can eventually cause some – or all – of those compartments to sag like yesterday’s party balloons.
To keep those fat compartments looking as if they’re positioned beneath the skin of a twenty-something, you need to maintain about 15 per cent body fat, says Dr Doris Day, dermatologist and author of Forget the Facelift: Turn Back The Clock With A Revolutionary Program For Ageless Skin.
Women with naturally fuller faces have more leeway because they have more fat in each compartment. On the flip side, “women with thin, angular faces may need 20 to 25 per cent body fat to keep a youthful face,” says Dr Day. Especially in your 40s.
Research on twins illustrates just how much weight affects the signs of ageing. Take twin sisters Lisa Cline and Laurie Baun. When they were young girls growing up, no one could tell them apart. Both had blonde hair and button noses – and both were considerably overweight. But during their last year in high school, Laurie was diagnosed with a digestive disease and dropped almost 10 kilograms. Over the next few years, she lost another 11 kilograms.
Initially, her slimmer body made her look much younger than her sister. But now, at 49, she looks several years older than Lisa.
The two sisters were among 186 pairs of identical female twins enlisted for a 2008 study at Case Western Reserve University, US. Researchers set out to determine exactly how much of facial ageing is genetically predetermined and how much of it has to do with lifestyle. It turns out, only a small part has to do with genes; most of what ages you can be traced to lifestyle habits and environment.
“Your heritage may initially dictate how you age, but if you introduce certain factors into your life, you will age faster,” says lead study author, plastic surgeon Dr Bahman Guyuron. “Likewise, if you avoid those damaging factors, you can slow down the hands of time.”
Dr Guyuron and his research team found that sun exposure is the biggest age accelerator, followed closely by smoking – no surprises there.
What was eye-opening, however, was how big a role weight played in the ageing process. Under the age of 40, the heavier twin (typically with a BMI four points higher than that of her sister, the equivalent of roughly 10kg) looked significantly older. But after 40, that same four-point difference in BMI made the heavier twin look significantly younger.
And not just because the extra fat plumps up facial skin and fills out wrinkles, says Dr Guyuron. It also makes skin look lighter, giving it a healthier glow. And these findings tended to be even more dramatic among twins over the age of 55.
Of course, Dr Guyuron isn’t recommending that anyone gain an unhealthy amount of weight in an effort to look younger. He admits that one drawback of the study is that he and his research team made their evaluations using only photos of the twins’ faces. If their bodies had been shown, a few years may have been shaved off members of the lean group and added to those in the heavier group.
Regardless, “it was clear that excessive weight loss can be quite detrimental to youthfulness,’’ says Dr Guyuron.
EXERCISE AS AN ACCELERATOR
If you happen to catch a marathon anywhere in Australia, you’re going to see beautifully muscled legs, slim hips, you-beaut abs… and faces that show their age.
The assumption has always been that the constant pavement pounding associated with running breaks down facial collagen, but there’s no research to support that. Experts now say a lower-than-average body fat percentage is the likelier culprit, echoing Dr Guyuron’s findings.
“It’s true that runners often have a more weathered look, but it’s not because gravity is pulling at their faces,” explains Canberra-based exercise physiologist Maria Nibali.
“It basically boils down to two factors: endurance runners tend to be very lean with low overall levels of body fat, and they spend a lot of time outside in the sun, with both factors contributing to their weathered appearance.”
Dr Reid agrees: “If you’re always exercising outside, it’s vital that you wear sunscreen every time, because sun damage causes the generation of free radicals – which break down collagen.”
Yet it’s a risk some tan-obsessed exercisers are willing to take. According to research conducted by the Cancer Council Victoria (CCV) in the summer of 2009-10, tanning was perceived as just another way to improve attractiveness.
“Fifty three per cent of survey respondents desired a tan, with 42 per cent believing a tan made them appear more attractive to others and 38 per cent believing a tan made them look healthier,” says Sue Heward, SunSmart Manager at CCV.
That’s not to say gym junkies, yoga buffs and other indoor exercisers are immune to the perils of accelerated ageing. “If their body fat levels are too low because they’re exercising too much and not eating substantially, it will show in their faces,” says Nibali.
“The only difference being they don’t also have the sun’s UV rays to contend with.”
THE SWEET SPOT OF ATTRACTIVENESS
In the quest to have both a fit body and a firm, fresh face, many women are turning to injectable solutions – or at least considering it. These non-surgical procedures include smoothers (like Botox or Dysport, an alternative version of Botox) that can reduce lines and wrinkles by relaxing facial muscles, and fillers (Radiesse, Restylane, Juvederm and Sculptra among them) that use hyaluronic acid, synthetic substances or even fat from your own body to target wrinkles and add volume to cheeks, temples and other areas of the face.
In other words, dermatologists can actually inject your bum into your face. How’s that for ironic? And just a little bit creepy.
While some women would “never say never”, many are staunchly against resorting to a scalpel or syringe. No matter what camp you sit in, there’s plenty of advice that doesn’t require extreme intervention. Here’s the best of the bunch:
While exercising outside in the sun can wreak havoc on your skin, working out in general has been found to help it. A 2008 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that regular exercisers had longer telomeres – tags at the ends of chromosomes that shorten with age. (Intriguingly, people with a lot of moles have longer telomeres, too, according to research from King’s College London in the UK. They found the more moles a person had, the more likely their DNA was to contain properties to fight off ageing. However, it’s important to know that having loads of moles increases your risk of skin cancer, so don’t get too cocky, moley people.) People who did even a moderate amount of cardio – about three 30-minute sessions a week – had telomeres that looked like those of someone about six years younger. Some other studies suggest that cardio exercise reduces stress – another major factor in ageing, according to Dr Guyuron’s twins study, which found that people who’d been through the rigours of an ugly divorce looked almost two years older than their married, single or even widowed siblings.
“When you’re feeling stressed, you use muscles that are synergistic [work together] with the gravity effect,” explains Dr Guyuron. “Gravity pulls the neck, creating and deepening two lines between the chin and the neck. And the more stress you go through in your life, the more visible those chin and neck lines are going to become.”
Some experts believe exercises specifically designed for the face can erase these lines. Facial yoga, for instance, combines traditional yoga poses that are believed to make your face look younger (downward dog, for one, increases blood flow to the head) with moves that take their cue from the yogic tradition of deep breathing (like puffing up your cheeks with air, then transferring the air from cheek to cheek while exhaling). Other moves include the smiling fish face (trying to smile while sucking your cheeks in) and the lion face (sticking your tongue right out and rolling your eyes – not a good look). These moves supposedly boost production of both elastin and collagen, resulting in a more youthful look. Research is underway to determine whether they actually do anything or not, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
What’s certain is that a healthy diet is as important for your face as it is for your bum. Research suggests eating foods packed with antioxidants – fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines) and richly coloured fruits and vegies (according to research from the US Department of Agriculture, blueberries, plums, blackberries and strawberries contain the highest concentrations of antioxidants, while researchers at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, US, found that kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts and broccoli are among the top vegie sources) – may improve your skin tone and boost your metabolism, too. Bonus. (Check out our eating plan for our easy ideas on munching your way to more youthful-looking skin.)
In fact, the fountain of youth appears to be filled with fish oil. The stuff has been shown to act as an anti-inflammatory (which helps maintain elasticity and suppleness in the skin) and to lower levels of leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and metabolism. A University of Wisconsin, US, study found people with low levels of leptin had faster metabolisms and were able to burn fat more quickly than those with higher levels. To reap the rewards, consume 2000 milligrams of fish oil a day, or six fish oil capsules, suggests Sydney-based dietitian Susie Burrell, author of Losing the Last 5kg: Simple Steps to Get the Body You Want.
Conversely, eating foods that are loaded with preservatives – those unpronounceable ingredients listed on the labels of many prepackaged foods, should be avoided as much as possible. In particular, there is concern about the use of artificial sweeteners which may be indirectly linked to overeating and sugar cravings, says Burrell. Plus, a new study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal (it’s a real page-turner) found that high levels of phosphates – chemicals found in soft drinks and processed foods – accelerate the signs of ageing.
Perhaps one of the smartest things you can do throughout your life is to maintain a healthy weight, since so-called yo-yo dieting is brutal on the face. (Imagine stretching a rubber band over and over again; it eventually becomes less resilient.) “Significant loss of lean body mass can mean losing muscle tone,” says Melanie McGrice, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. Adds Stephen Gullo, author of The Thin Commandments: “That contributes to your face looking older. These kinds of fluctuations are bad for both your face and your health.”
Making matters worse, your face responds to weight fluctuations the same way your body does: you lose it first where you want it most (mid-face – between the cheekbones and that area from your nose to the corners of your mouth) and that’s where you gain it back last.
In the end, the secret to looking young and staying fit isn’t really much of a secret at all, but something we’ve known all along: eat right, exercise often, slather on sunscreen every single day (SPF 30+ please) and follow the stellar advice in this article. Also, developing a healthy attitude toward ageing doesn’t hurt. Everyone is going to wind up with a few wrinkles at some point, and those lines won’t diminish your beauty. They’ll show you’ve lived.