Exercise class targets facial muscles

Routines were inspired by the late Jack Lalanne

Participants in the "Natural Face Lift" class at the Parkview Senior Wellness Center on Sept. 27 included, from left to right: Jim Nahrwold, Nicole Crabtree, Darlene Norden, Hannah Headley Johnson, Rosalie Haritun, Carol McCarty and Joan White. (By Tanya Isch Caylor for The News-Sentinel)
Jim Thurber, right, met fitness guru Jack Lalanne at a conference in Chicago about a year before Lalanne's death in January 2011. Lalanne was 95 in the photo, which now hangs above Thurber's desk. (Courtesy photo)
Jim Thurber performs a facial strengthening exercise during the "Natural Face Lift" class he teaches at the Parkview Senior Wellness Center. (By Tanya Isch Caylor for The News-Sentinel)

Jim Thurber places his thumbs at the corners of his mouth and presses down, forcing his lips into a gruesome grimace.

“Now imagine in your mind you’re trying to do a big smile, but your thumbs are going to prevent you from doing that,” he says through clenched teeth.

His students, mostly women above a certain age, contort their faces as instructed, heeding Thurber’s directive to “sit up straight and tall” in their chairs all the while.

As they hold this position, Thurber explains that flexing their zygomatic muscles – which extend from the corners of the mouth to the cheekbones – will help prevent the mouth drooping that makes some older people look like they’re in a perpetual state of unhappiness.

“So instead of coming down like this, like you’re always frowning,” he says, “it’s going to be more natural and you’re going to look much happier.”

Another benefit: avoiding the formation of deep ridges extending downward from the nostrils – a process that Thurber says actually begins for most people when they’re still in their 20s.

Given the fact that most of the people in class today are several decades beyond that, the best they can hope for, perhaps, is a bit of improvement on that particular facial crease.

But Thurber’s regulars in his “Natural Face Lift” class at the Senior Wellness Center tucked inside the Parkview Health and Fitness Center, 3000 E. State St., say that doing the exercises really does help.

“I don’t know why all these Hollywood types pay for plastic surgery, when they could just do this instead,” says Rosalie Haritun, one of Thurber’s most devoted students.

INSPIRED BY A MASTER

Thurber says the idea for his “Natural Face Lift” class, which earned him a spot at the 2015 Tapestry show at the Memorial Coliseum, came from watching “The Jack Lalanne Show” with his mom as a kid.

The fitness guru and bodybuilder, who at age 54 bested a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in a strength contest, believed that facial muscles could benefit from the same sort of resistance training as other muscle groups.

“You know why so many of you students look older than your years, and why your jowls are hanging and your chin is hanging and your neck’s all kind of craggy looking?” asks Lalanne on one episode, now available on youtube.

“Because the muscles are out of shape!” roars the smooth-faced man with jet-black hair, clad in a one-piece outfit that hugs his trim waist. “You can firm up your stomach muscles with exercise, and you can firm up the muscles in your face!”

The concept makes sense to Thurber, who graduated with a degree in physical education and health management from what was then known as Manchester College in 1982 and has worked as an exercise specialist with Parkview Health for more than 30 years.

There are, after all, more than 50 muscles in the human head and neck. Why would those muscles behave any differently than other muscles in the body?

Thurber once met the “godfather of fitness,” at a conference in Chicago about a year before Lalanne’s January 2011 death. In the photo hanging above Thurber’s desk, Lalanne looks decidedly less energetic than in his TV show days, but his face has remarkably few creases for a man of such advanced years.

“He was 95,” recalls Thurber, “but he looked great.”

DOES IT WORK?

In his class, Thurber bases the exercises he teaches on those that Lalanne once used, emphasizing the principles of resistance training but in a careful, targeted way that avoids placing undue stress on the delicate skin around the eyes.

In one exercise, he gently places a finger on his eyelashes to hold the lids shut while simultaneously flexing the muscles tasked with raising the eyelids.

In another, he pushes up against his eyebrows with his fingers while working to keep his eyes closed.

It’s not exactly the kind of effort that elicits grunts and sweating. Do it enough times, though, and these tiny muscles most people take for granted can get sore.

But does facial exercise really eliminate – or at least minimize – wrinkles?

Despite the fact that this unusual practice may date as far back as Cleopatra, scientists still don’t know the answer. A report in the January 2014 issue of the Aesthetic Surgery Journal noted that while nine previous studies all achieved positive outcomes, each lacked the protocols hard science usually demands.

“The evidence to date is insufficient to determine whether facial exercises are effective for facial rejuvenation,” the researchers wrote. “Evidence from large randomized controlled trials will be needed before conclusions can be drawn.”

WORKING ON THEIR LAUGH LINES

Though tangible benefits are hard to quantify, Thurber’s regulars swear they can tell a difference in the three or four years most have been attending his three-times-per-week class.

Besides, there are other reasons to attend as well.

Ted Nahrwold, who describes himself as “the meanest Little League umpire in town,” broke his jaw decades ago when he was in the Army. “Now I can’t get my jaw open as much as my dentist would like,” he explains.

He showed up for the first time one recent Wednesday, hoping the exercises will help him gain more mobility in his jaw.

Carol McCarty, a smooth-skinned nurse who’s been attending for several years, believes the exercises improve the swallowing mechanism, which can be a problem for some people as they get older.

“I feel strongly that it’s helping me to feel better,” adds Hannah Headley Johnson, the mother of Tony and Emmy award winner Heather Headley.

Needless to say, this isn’t Thurber’s most popular class. There’s no getting around the fact that many people feel awkward practicing such extreme facial contortions in public. Some people will show up for a single session to get the exercises, but then elect to perform them in the privacy of their own homes.

“You do kind of have to check your inhibitions at the door,” notes Thurber.

But the regulars appreciate the camaraderie. After all, when you’re making silly faces, you can’t help but laugh.

“Poor Tom Selleck. His eyebrows are starting to droop,” noted Haritun, a fan of the star’s show “Blue Bloods,” as she performed an eyebrow exercise during one recent session.

“Tell him to come to class,” quipped Thurber.

“Maybe I will,” said Haritun. “I’ll have to write to him.”

To learn more

What: The “Natural Face Lift” class at Parkview Senior Wellness Center incorporates exercises that tone the more than 50 muscles in the head and neck.

When: 11:10-11:40 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays

Where: Located in the rear of the Parkview Health and Fitness Center, 3000 E. State St.

Cost: Free to Parkview Senior Club members; $2 fee per session to nonmembers. (You don’t need to be a senior to attend).

Tanya Isch Caylor blogs about postfat living at www.90in9.wordpress.com. Contact her at tischcaylor@gmail.com. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.

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