Katy reveals another group of very important muscles that probably are not on your list of body parts which need movement - the muscles in your face. Just like any other parts of your body, when these muscles don’t get movement, it causes problems now and later in life. In this episode, Katy explains why this matters and gives you some fun exercises that you can do at home.
(time codes are approximate)
00:04:10 - Chewing Is Exercise for the Face (Jump to section)
00:05:40 - Another Way To Think About "Whole" Food (Jump to section)
00:08:00 - Feel Your Chewing Anatomy Working (Jump to section)
00:11:15 - Foodies Love Crunch and Your Face Does Too (Jump to section)
00:13:10 - Less Processed is Better Nutrition (Jump to section)
00:17:15 - Other ways and a BONUS recipe (Jump to section)
00:19:00 - More thoughts and an exercise (Jump to section)
LINKS AND RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THE SHOW
This is the Move Your DNA podcast, a show where movement science meets your everyday life. I’m Katy Bowman: biomechanist, author, and food-lover. All bodies are welcome here. Let’s get moving!
Howdy peeps. Do you remember the way you thought about the muscles in your feet before you heard about minimal footwear? It was probably not at all. The way our feet felt and ankles performed had nothing to do, in our minds, with the strength and mobility of our feet. We didn’t even know feet needed their own exercise. We didn’t know that the environment we had been putting our feet in for their entire lives: stiff shoes, always walking on human-made surfaces, no vitamin texture, had left them de-conditioned. Said another way, these very important muscles, in our feet, they were off our radar, even in the fitness and health communities. Even in people who exercised a lot otherwise.
Today, I’d like to reveal to you another group of very important muscles that are probably not on your list of parts that need movement and when they don’t get it, end up creating problems for you. These are ... the muscles in the face.
Many of you now exercise your feet, which is excellent. But if I’ve taught you well, you’ve also come to understand that feet get the abundant movement they need, simply by walking or running, specifically in shoes that allow your feet to feel more of the shapes they’re walking upon. Similarly, the muscles in our face get their movement through our diet. And I also want to add that looking at humans on a longer timeframe, human teeth, and jaw muscles were also used often as tools. Our biting and tearing ability with our faces (our teeth and our jaws) - these movements are unpracticed, but we have a lot of strength here in our mouths, and before we had metal tools, our jaws and teeth were very active. They were used in lieu of tools. That all being said, in this episode I’m focusing on diet as the landscape your face muscles are walking over. Is your diet the equivalent to flat and level, as far as your jaws are concerned, or do you have texture in your diet to keep all of your face parts fit?
To support my latest book Rethink Your Position, I just had an essay published in Eating Well magazine, all about our face muscles’ need for movement. Why is a biomechanist writing for a foodie magazine? Because there are more than dietary nutrients to be found in food. There are also mechanical nutrients.
And just one more note: our time spent breastfeeding as children is also our diet and also starts setting the shape of our face from the outset. I’ve written more extensively on kids and mechanical nutrients in my book Grow Wild, about all the movements kid bodies need as they’re developing. I’ve also covered the role of breastfeeding and face and jaw formation in my essay in my book Movement Matters. There are also entire podcast episodes dedicated to breastfeeding movements. That's episode 72 and 77. I’ll link to those in the show notes. In this show, I’ll be focusing, again, specifically on post-weaning diets for all ages.
Here’s my article, with my commentary woven in, you know, because I’m me.
Healthy eaters typically consider the compounds contained within their food: the calories, micro and macronutrients, fiber, etc. But there is something else our bodies need that can be found in food. And that is all the movements associated with eating or consuming that food. It’s not only your arms, legs, and abs that need movement. You have important body parts in your head and neck that need regular movement too.
Humans have used their entire bodies to gather, grow and prepare food throughout the human timeline. But the amount of labor most of us put into our food has been steadily decreasing over time. This goes for the movements used to chew our food as well. The mortar and pestle, along with the mill, has been around for a long time, but the list of inventions that are mechanically break down our food so we don’t have to use our teeth and jaws - it has grown. The items on this list are now found in many kitchens. They would be blenders, grinders, knives, food processors, graters, meat tenderizers. Even the heat from our stoves and oven are all moving our food for us. Our face muscles now have so very little to do.
Our modern diets have become softer, and even diets made up of “whole” foods (I'm putting whole in "air quotes") meaning whole foods as close to their source as possible. Whole foods have become more processed - not chemically, but mechanically.
Whole carrots, shredded carrots, and cooked carrots - these are all “whole” food. (And that's the "whole" in air quotes.) They're a whole food but they're not actually the same; they are not all whole when you think of them from a mechanical perspective. While they might be equal in dietary nutrients, each requires different work from the jaw, right? The whole carrot is gonna require big bites, tearing motions. Shredded carrots have been broken down by the grater and they take less chewing movement now. And the cooked carrots require just a little mashing with the tongue to make them easy to swallow.
So again, all these foods are pretty equivalent when you think about them from a chemical compound perspective, but the experiences of them for the muscles of your face are different. When you chew your food, which is to say when you move the food with your tongue, teeth, jaw bones, skull bones, and other muscles of the head, all of these parts are being moved right back. The food and the body are in this dynamic relationship. Two of the body’s strongest muscles are those that move the jaw. They are called the masseters. (It sounds like musketeers. Masseters. I don't know. M A S S E T E R S. I always said masseters but...) Although these muscles are ... they're relatively small, compared to many muscles in your body, they are able to, through your jaw, exert the most pressure of all the skeletal muscles. So they are tiny but they are mighty! They've got great leverage. They are built to do food processing.
So this is a little exercise for you to practice. This is how you can:
So you're gonna take your hands and place them on the sides of your jaw (if you put about the height of your ear and drop down - if you open and close you'll feel your fingers go into that little divot. And then bite down lightly a few times. Just squeeze your teeth together a little bit. And then do it a few more times again with greater force. And you're gonna feel the muscles underneath your fingers bulge underneath your hands, right? So you're contracting those muscles.
These aren't the only muscles that are moved when you chew. So now you're gonna move your fingers up to your temples, where you might rub your index fingers when you have a headache. Gently press into that area. And do the same thing. First, bite down just lightly a few times. You can feel that bulge there. And then bite down a little bit more strongly. And you can really feel the musculature bulge underneath the fingers all the way up at the temples when you are chewing.
Now you’re going to move your hands just below your ears. So we're not on the jaw anymore. I guess we're not in the masseter location. You're gonna come down below your ears but not on your neck - just forward to your face. And then wiggle your jaw to the right and left. Right? So chewing is not just one movement. Different types of foods - consistencies - are gonna move your face in different ways. So this is more of a grinding action of your jaw going right to left. (I'm doing it right now.)
So these are just movements that go into chewing work. And they're happening in different parts of our faces.
So next time you're eating, if you put your hands in all these places when you are eating something soft - like yogurt, or soup, or a smoothie, you can see how much muscle you are feeling or not feeling as it may be. And then if you try this again with something that's more chewy - so that's gonna be jerky, or dehydrated mangoes, or something crunchy that you really need to chomp down on, you're gonna feel how different foods exercise your face differently.
And just P.S. There’s one movement I didn’t add to this list in the article, and that’s the contraction that goes into getting your teeth apart when you’ve chewed on something that's really sticky. So, in this case, it’s not working the closing muscles of the jaw, it’s working strongly the muscles that are opening the jaw. So while candy isn’t great for the teeth, it can work out the muscles of the face pretty well. I’m looking at you, Now & Laters. For those of you who grew up in the 80s. Anything that sort of got your teeth to stick together - you have to rrrrah... you have to really work the muscles to pull the face apart. This is probably why my kids will want more candy. Because it's good exercise for their face. I'm not going to let them hear this episode, I just decided.
So, the forces created when we chew, they play a role in how our body works; chewing, ripping, tearing, swallowing, these all provide necessary mechanical stimulation that end up helping develop strong, optimal anatomy and function of the jaws, face, throat muscles, vocal cords, Eustachian tubes, sinuses, throat glands…and the brain.
So mostly soft diets, they don’t only impact the state of those chewing muscle. They also impact the brain. The muscular action of chewing helps preserve the health of the part of the brain that deals with memory and other cognitive functions. That's the hippocampus.
So how does chewing support brain function? That's a good question. So, it's not super clear. There's likely multiple reasons, but if we just stick to considering the mechanics, the action of chewing has shown to increase blood flow to the brain. It could also be that brain parts involved in eating are stimulated by the mechanical process of chewing. There's been MRI studies that show that bite force strength influences brain activity. So whatever the mechanism, there is evidence that chewing preserves brain function, so just take a look at your diet to see how often and how hard your jaw works on a daily basis, on a weekly basis. So maybe right now you’re going out of your way to eat brain-healthy food, foods like rich in Omega 3s, but make sure you’re not missing other opportunities to feed your brain while you’re eating. Your chewing muscles might be doing the equivalent of sitting in a chair all day!
You can buy jaw exercisers now. I've seen commercials for them on YouTube. These are rubber squares to bite down on repeatedly to help deal with tissues of the face that are atrophying - that are weakening, getting smaller, in terms of mass. But as food lovers, we can also shape our anatomy by what we put on the plate.
And of course, I need to be clear, there are times when soft food is warranted. So if you're eating with braces, you have fresh dental work, or you have oral injury or something anatomical where chewing isn't working, soft food is gonna often be what you're prescribed. But outside of these times, we can approach meal preparation not only to receive your RDA, your recommended daily allowances of vitamins and minerals, but also for the RDA, the recommended daily amount of movement.
So begin by considering the food movement found in the diet of your average day. How many of your calories do you drink versus chew? How soft is your food? Can you think about your diet as something that's training your mouth? And can you cross-train a little bit?
Certainly, smoothies are handy. They're full of dietary nutrients. But again, what about those mechanical nutrients? You can maybe swap out a liquid meal for its unprocessed counterpart. You can keep some of the ingredients out of the blender so you can grind them up with your teeth instead. And I have this idea - I'm terrible at doing reels. I have a lot of creativity in my mind, but I can't bring myself to carve out that much of my day to making videos that are consumed in minutes and then people move on. I can't donate my time in that way. But I have this idea of putting everything in a smoothie, hitting blend, and then drinking the smoothie. And then laying out exactly everything that's in that blender and taking the time to chew up everything individually so that we could see on camera what I'm talking about in terms of your getting the nutrients bypassing all of the mastications. And it's also interesting to think when we ... what is the relationship of dietary nutrients with rate in which we consume them. I do think there is something there with the speed with which we tend to eat - because we try to do everything super fast these days - so I don't know. Keep your eye out. Maybe I will make that video. And I feel like my jaws are gonna be aching by the time. It might be a fun summer thing to do with kids. Make a smoothie and then put everything out and you're all gonna chew it and I'm gonna film you and it's gonna be awesome.
All right. Anyway, so…
You can eat nuts and not only nut butters. Right? That's a way to get the same dietary nutrients, the same flavors that you were after... just a little bit more work. Jerky and dehydrated fruit. Raw produce. And then you can fit your jaw stretches - so it's not only the biting down - our mouths don't even have to do that big, wide, stretch. Eating a whole apple, really requires that you stretch the mandible, that jaw bone, away from the rest of the face. So when you eat foods that haven't been pre-cut, it's really gonna take your mouth through a ... let's just call it the full range of motion. It's gonna take those joints and musculature through its full range of motion. You can approach a bowl of greens ... I do like to make a giant bowl of just a shredded cabbage salad. It's got a lot of great stuff. I'm going to give you the recipe right now. This is like a bonus. This is if I had a small cooking show
So I take a head of cabbage. I like to mix up purple and green and I just shred it down. Cilantro. Green Onions ... what else do I put in there? I think that's pretty much the base. And then I make a salad dressing that's got apple cider vinegar, peanut butter, orange juice (and one time I didn't have any orange juice but I had one of those immune boost vitamin Cs. I just threw that in there. It was awesome.) You can add honey if you like your salad dressings a little bit sweet. Salt and pepper, and sesame oil. Oh, and ginger. I grate probably - I like things spicy - an inch and a half to 2 inches of ginger - fresh ginger. Squish garlic in there. Mix up that dressing. Pour it over. Toss it all the way up. And then throw in peanuts, as long as you ... don't do it if you're allergic to peanuts. It is not only delicious, it is a workout. It is just great. And I can make a giant bowl of it and just leave it out and the whole family will eat off of it over the course of the day. So I do'nt know if that works into the conventions with which you feed your family, but it works great for us.
Ok. That cooking demo stops. Back to the movement part...
Hey, we all want to get the most out of our food - the most flavor, the most nutrition, the best value. Chewing, grinding, tearing, and all the other movements that have come with eating foods that haven’t been mechanically processed for us is yet one more way to think about not only eating but eating well.
Ok, so stepping outside of this article, I just want to add a couple more things about the muscles of the face.
There are actually modalities for face exercises out there. You can find them in yoga oftentimes and in theater and singing. There are also face exercises found in oral-motor therapies that work to improve speech and swallowing patterns. There are also face exercises to be found in beauty - more specifically exercises for facial appearance. There is a scientific approach to this. And I’m going to walk you through one of these exercises as outlined in a 2014 article in The Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. That piece is titled:
I'm gonna put that in the notes in case you want to see some of the other exercises. And this is just while you're listening, to get you to feel what may be a little fatigue in these muscles is like. I imagine most of you listening have worked through using your arms or your legs in a structured exercise where you're like, "Wow, I can really feel it working." So that's what this is right now.
So, start with your mouth closed. You're gonna keep your lips closed. And then begin to smile, keeping the lips closed. Start with a small smile that moves the right corner of the mouth to the right and the left to the left. So they're not really going up as much as they're going away from each other. And go as far as you can without letting the lips come apart. And you're gonna hold this for 10 seconds. I’ll have Brock, our audio engineer, give us a 10-second soundtrack.
(10 seconds of counting soundtrack)
Ok. Without resting, you're not gonna rest. So in that position, hold it, now you're gonna go a little wider. Let your lips open a little bit, so now there’s a little teeth, and hold for 10 more seconds. No resting unless you absolutely have to.
(10 seconds of counting soundtrack)
Ok, without resting, you can do this. There’s no resting in the smile workout! Lift the corners of your mouth just a bit, showing just a little more teeth, and you're gonna hold that there for 10 seconds. 10 seconds on the clock…
(10 seconds of counting soundtrack)
Ok no resting, now go as wide and as high as you can with your smile, for 10 seconds. No resting. Make it burn baby!
(10 seconds of counting soundtrack)
All right. Still no resting. Now we’re going back down. Let your smile get a bit smaller and hold it for 10 more seconds. And I'm gonna use that 10 seconds to tell you about this time my sister needed to go in for some bladder imaging where her bladder needed to be full and they told her that her bladder was too full and to just go to the bathroom and let out a little bit of pee, please. And I thought maybe you could relate to that story right now. You’re almost done with 10 seconds, don’t laugh.
Now we’re down to the mouth closed but the corners stretched far away from each other. 10 more seconds.
(10 seconds of counting soundtrack)
Ok! Stretch it out. Yawn. Open your mouth as wide as possible. Maybe get your hands in there. Slap your face. Rub your face. Rub those muscles. How did that exercise feel? I hope it was eye-opening. Or I guess, it might have been eye-closing - but you know what I mean. Anyway...
That is all for now, my friends. Big takeaway from this episode: your face has muscles too. And these muscles, like all muscles, need movement. The end.
Hi! My name is Brenda from Southeast London in the U.K. This has been Move Your DNA with Katy Bowman, a podcast about movement. We hope you find the general information in this podcast informative and helpful, but it is not intended to replace medical advice and should not be used as such. Our theme tune was performed by Dan MacCormack. This podcast was produced by Brock Armstrong and it transcribed by Annette Yen. Make sure to subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen to audio and find out more about Katy, her books, and her movement programs, at NutritiousMovement.com.