Naomi Watts, 46, visits a dermatologist to help combat gym face from exercising too much. Image Credit: Getty Images

Regular visits to the gym promise to keep bumps and bulges at bay and to help retain the leanness and muscle tone of youth, but a generation of gym goers are discovering that throwing yourself into any kind of intense exercise after 35 could backfire when you look in the mirror. While your body benefits from your workout regimen, this often comes with drawn features, sunken cheeks, wrinkles and hollow eyes, all signs that experts attribute to a rapidly rising phenomenon called ‘gym face’.

Cosmetic surgeons say there is no sign of a lull in the rapidly soaring popularity of non-surgical procedures among the 40-plus brigade, with the most popular being dermal fillers designed to fill any deep crevices in the skin and increase lost volume, alongside Botox to iron out the wrinkles that accompany facial fat loss. And many who choose to go under the needle at this age share a new-found love of extreme fitness. Triathlons, cycling and running, along with other endurance challenges beloved of this age group, are the main culprit – not only do they cause dramatic weight loss, but experts say they also inflict the kind of prolonged wear and tear that exacerbates a drop in skin’s youthful plumpness.

‘Gym face is definitely more common among the 40-60 age group,’ says Dr Tracy Mountford, director of the Cosmetic Skin Clinics in Harley Street London. ‘I certainly have noticed a rise in clients from that age range who have experienced accelerated loss of facial volume, particularly in the cheek, as a result of their workout regime.’ Often, Dr Mountford says, they have fantastic bodies, but their faces appear prematurely aged. ‘When body fat is very low through hard exercise, there’s an unfortunate trade-off and it’s that the face will invariably suffer,’ she says. Men and women are equally prone; both lose subcutaneous fat from the face as they reach their mid-30s and beyond. While women have the added double whammy of the hormonal desert of menopause that causes slackening of facial muscles and accentuates the haggard look, men have their own skin issues to deal with.

‘The shape of a man’s face can really change when the fat pads positioned above and below the cheekbones diminish with age and excessive exercise,’ says Dr Patrick Bowler, medical director of the UK-based Courthouse Clinics.

‘The face can become squarer, creating the dreaded jowls that are very ageing.’ In all cases, though, these facial changes are accelerated by hardcore exercise.

A cosmetic surgeon based in New York, Dr Gerald Imber, who has worked with celebrities including Martha Stewart, goes as far as blaming marathon running for being the biggest cause of premature wrinkles after smoking and sunbathing.

He and some other surgeons believe the constant high impact of pounding up and down when you jog pulls the facial skin away from the underlying muscles. ‘Take a look at the serious runners you know in their mid-40s,’ Dr Imber says. ‘They have haggard, sunken faces, due primarily to a loss of subcutaneous fat. It takes a while to manifest itself, but that’s the price extracted for the benefits running offers.’

While the doctor concedes that running is undoubtedly one of the best forms of aerobic exercises for all-round health, he says it has few benefits for the skin. Any loss of body fat that occurs through running, he says, affects the face before the breasts in women, the buttocks and finally the abdominal area.

‘The constant rising and pounding down lifts and pulls the facial skin away from the underlying muscles and bones,’ Dr Imber says. ‘You surely have seen this in slow-motion films of runners. The skin rises and falls, and as the foot impacts, it continues to fall for another fraction of a second, then bounces up again. The elastic fibres in the skin absorb the repeated trauma until they eventually cease to fully bounce back and ultimately stretch a bit, causing laxity of the skin.’

Other intense aerobic activities or twice-daily workouts can give rise to gym face. 
And even celebrities are not immune. When Matthew McConaughey, 45, lost weight for Dallas Buyers Club, it showed nowhere more starkly than on his face, and Jake Gyllenhaal, 34, looked decades older when his razor sharp cheekbones protruded noticeably after he lost 9kg to play a reporter in Nightcrawler last year.

Others who have clearly pushed their bodies to age-defying limits, like Madonna, Jennifer Aniston and Renee Zellweger, have appeared with faces that look suspiciously plump for their age. And in Hollywood, nearly every star over 40 has a personal dermatologist, with the likes of Manhattan-based Dr David Colbert’s books filled with everyone from Naomi Watts, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz. It’s difficult to imagine these skin doctors are doing anything other than providing the means to holding back the years while enabling their clients to maintain the physique of a 20-year-old.

Dr Bowler predicts demand for cosmetic treatments for gym face can only increase further as people stay fitter in their later years.

Surgeons already perform laser skin resurfacing on the faces of people who’ve spent years surfing, running or skiing without enough sunblock, while lip-fillers, he says, are a huge draw among men and women who want features youthful enough to match their bodies. If you go down that route, it can be costly. Fillers typically last about a year, after which the choices are going back to the surgeon or easing down on exercise. It’s increasingly likely to be the former. ‘A younger-looking body and face is now what many people want as they get older, Dr Bowler says. ‘It helps them keep up careers, and also if they start dating after divorce. The message is that with care and attention, you can have it all – an athletic-looking middle-aged body and a face to complement it.’

How to avoid ‘Gym Face’ without surgery

Drink plenty of water: Skin that is dehydrated through exercise becomes parched and appears more wrinkled quite quickly.

Reduce your mileage: By all means run – just not as far as you did in your 30s. It’s not just your appearance that will benefit. Findings presented at an American College of Sports Medicine conference a couple of years ago suggested that regular running lowered the risk of mortality but only when no more than 20 miles (32km) in up to five sessions a week were covered in training. Running on grass rather than concrete reduces the impact that contributes to skin laxity in the face.

Wear a cap: And always use sunblock when exercising outdoors.

Pedal away your wrinkles: Don’t avoid exercise altogether though, some exercise is good. Professor Mark Tarnopolsky, an exercise scientist at McMaster University in Ontario, recruited volunteers aged 65 and older with normal skin for their age and asked half to jog or cycle three times a week at 65 per cent of their aerobic limit for three months, while the other half didn’t exercise. Among the exercisers, the outer and inner skin layers both resembled what scientists typically expect to find in healthy 20- to 40-year-olds, Prof Tarnopolsky said.

The beauty saviours to banish gym face

Heaven Bee Venom Pot, Dh515, Nail Spa

Bee venom is used to ‘fool’ the skin into thinking it has been lightly stung with the toxin melittin, which stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, and this is why its makers refer to it as nature’s alternative to Botox.

Vichy LifeActiv Serum 10 Eyes & Lashes, Dh195, Bin Sina Pharmacy

This powerful serum works on improving the appearance of both the eye contour and fortifying the eyelashes, restoring a more youthful, wide-eyed appearance.

La Prairie Caviar Luxe Eye Lift Cream, Dh1,430, Harvey Nichols

A luxurious cream that successfully targets seven of the most prominent problems around the delicate eye area – fine lines, wrinkles, loss of firmness, loss of elasticity, feeling of puffiness, dark under-eye circles and dryness.

Clarins Double Serum, Dh390

This serum has a dual chamber system that combines two age-defying formulas into one innovative serum that reactivates skin’s vital functions.

Kiehl’s Cryste Marine Firming Cream, Dh297

Made with Cryste Marine, known to boost cell renewal, this hydrating formula improves skin elasticity and firmness to reveal skin’s natural radiance.

Elemis Pro-Intense Lift Effect, Dh534, www.elemis.ae

This targeted anti-ageing day cream contains hi-tech plant stem cells and Arjuna Bark extract to firm, plump and tighten, restoring the look of skin’s vitality, ideal for hormonal and menopausal skin.

Institut Esthederm Intensif Hyaluronic Cream, Dh400, Bin Sina Pharmacy

This intensive cream targets severe dehydration and penetrates the deepest layers of the skin to re-plump skin tissues by saturating them with water.

Omorovicza Rejuvenating Night Cream, Dh845, Harvey Nichols

Hydro Mineral Transference ensures minerals are absorbed by the epidermis and dermis in unparalleled levels to repair skin, leave it replenished and deeply hydrated. It also supports the natural production of collagen.


Olay Regenerist Wrinkle Relaxing Complex, Dh90, Carrefour

By combining Olay moisture with advanced micro filler powders, this smoothes the appearance of fine lines, whilst the biopeptide + B3 complex formula hydrates.