Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
These days, skincare is about a lot more than what products you use. We increasingly understand that we can’t separate our health into different areas – if we want healthy and glowing skin, we need to consider our overall physical and mental wellness too. So, it is no wonder that holistic skincare is a growing trend within the beauty industry.
As the body’s largest organ, our skin responds visibly to what’s going on inside us. What we eat, how we sleep, and how stressed we are can all have an impact on our skin’s health.
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But what about exercise? We hear regularly how moving our bodies benefits our physical and mental wellbeing. According to the NHS, being physically active reduces our risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. It boosts our mood and self-esteem and helps protect us against stress, depression, and dementia.
If exercise has such an impact on so many areas of our health, it stands to reason that getting moving should also affect our skin.
But, as ever with these things, the relationship between exercise and skin health isn’t a completely straightforward one. While moving our bodies has several benefits for our skin, there are also some issues that we need to be aware of.
In this blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into how exercise impacts our skin, look at the benefits, and discuss some of the issues that can crop up (and how to avoid them).
What Are the Benefits of Exercise for Skin Health?
1. Increased Blood Flow
Go for a run, complete a workout, or spend a sweaty 90 minutes on the football pitch, and you’re bound to notice your increased heart rate and your hot cheeks. One of the most obvious things that exercise does for our bodies is increasing blood flow, especially to the muscles and skin.
Our muscles benefit from this boost to our circulation because of their increased need for oxygen during exercise. But the reason our skin also sees an increase in blood flow is more to do with temperature regulation – one of the many roles that our skin plays in keeping us healthy.
Exercise raises our temperature, so our bodies direct more blood towards the skin’s surface in an effort to cool us down. This is also why we sweat (more on that later).
While being flushed and sweaty immediately after intense exercise might not be your preferred look, once you’ve had a chance to recover a little, you might notice that your skin looks glowing and bright.
This healthy glow is one of the benefits of exercising. All that fresh blood coming up to the skin’s surface brings with it essential oxygen and nutrients that our skin’s cells need to stay healthy.
Aesthetics aren’t the only reason to enjoy exercise’s ability to boost blood flow to the skin. As we get older, the blood flow to the dermis – the middle layer of skin – decreases significantly. In turn, this impacts our skin’s ability to heal wounds and be an effective barrier against infection.
While we can’t avoid the impacts of ageing altogether, staying active and exercising regularly as we get older may help to offset the natural decline in blood flow to our skin, keeping it healthy and functioning well for longer.
2. Protect Skin’s Structure
Decreased blood flow to the dermis isn’t the only way that age impacts our skin. As we get older, our skin’s structure begins to deteriorate. Our epidermis and dermis both become thinner. We produce less collagen and elastin, and our skin is slower to repair itself too.
These changes compromise our skin’s health, leaving it less able to perform its role as a barrier against infection and disease. It’s also part of the reason that we start to see sagging skin, lines, and wrinkles appear as we get older.
However, there’s evidence to suggest that exercise might help to slow this effect and keep our skin healthier for longer.
A 2015 study published in Aging Cell looked at the difference in skin structure between older adults who were regularly active and those who lived a more sedentary lifestyle. The researchers found that some signs of skin ageing were slowed in the participants who lived active lifestyles and exercised regularly.
To investigate this effect further, the researchers enrolled a subgroup of the sedentary adults in a 3-month cycling exercise programme, and then looked at how their skin had changed. They found that participants had increased collagen content after the exercise intervention, as well as reduced stratum corneum thickness (the stratum corneum is the very top layer of the epidermis and tends to become thicker with age).
It’s worth noting that this study looked at the frequency of exercise, not the performance level. In other words, you don’t need to be the fastest runner or the strongest person at the gym to give your skin’s health a boost. You just need to exercise regularly.
3. Better Sleep
Increased blood flow and slowed skin deterioration are both direct ways that getting moving can give our skin’s health a boost. But there are also some indirect benefits from exercise that may have a knock-on effect on our skin.
A good night’s sleep has all sorts of benefits for our health, improving our ability to think and reason, boosting our mood, giving our bodies a chance to digest and repair, and even helping to protect us against chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and dementia.
And sleep is also vital to our skin. It is when we sleep that our skin has the opportunity to repair damage and replenish itself through the growth of new skin cells.
When we don’t get the sleep we need, we’re more likely to develop dark circles, lines, and wrinkles, as a 2015 study published in Clinical and Experimental Dermatology demonstrated. We also see greater water loss and our skin is less able to repair damage from UV light.
What does all this have to do with exercise? Well, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that exercising regularly leads to better sleep for many of us. So, if you’ve been sleeping poorly, upping your exercise regime might help – and in turn, your skin’s health should see a boost.
4. Less Stress
While we’re on the topic of the indirect benefits of exercise, another bonus of moving your body regularly is the impact it has on your mood and your stress levels.
Like lack of sleep, stress has a visible impact on our skin’s health. Its effect on our hormones can lead to an increase in sebum production, which may lead to blocked pores and breakouts. And chronic stress can also exacerbate inflammatory skin conditions like psoriasis, acne, and atopic dermatitis.
We all experience stress from time to time. But exercising regularly can help us to manage our stress levels and might, therefore, reduce the impact of stress on our bodies, including our skin.
This is great news and another tick in the box for making exercise a regular habit. However, it is important to note that the relationship between stress and exercise isn’t always straightforward.
There’s a difference between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is a short-term response to a situation, while chronic stress is a longer-term sense of living under pressure.
Both can cause physiological reactions, although our response to acute stress is usually over fairly quickly once the immediate situation is resolved. It’s chronic stress that is more likely to result in skin issues.
Exercise can lower our stress levels and help us avoid chronic stress. However, in the short term, exercise is itself a physical stressor. The demands it places on our bodies can cause a release of stress hormones, especially if we are tempted into over-training.
Overall, exercise is usually associated with lower stress levels, which should help to protect our skin’s health. However, it’s important not to overdo it if we want to keep our skin healthy.
Can Exercise Cause Skin Issues?
We’ve looked at the pros of exercise for our skin’s health and seen that moving regularly helps to keep our skin nourished and protects against some of the effects of ageing. Exercise can also help improve our sleep and lower our stress levels, which may also boost our skin’s health.
However, exercise can also cause issues for our skin. Often, these issues can be managed, as long as we’re aware of them and take steps to protect our skin when we exercise.
Here are a few ways exercise can negatively impact our skin and what you can do to mitigate them.
Regulating your temperature is one of the important roles your skin plays in keeping your body healthy. And we all know what that looks like when we’re exercising hard. As working our muscles increases our temperature, our sweat glands come to the rescue, releasing extra sweat in a bid to prevent our bodies from overheating.
Unfortunately, that extra sweat can cause problems for our skin. While sweat on its own won’t cause acne, the American Academy of Dermatology warns that dried sweat can quickly combine with makeup, dirt, and bacteria, blocking our pores and creating the right conditions for a breakout.
Fortunately, the solution to this is relatively simple – make sure you wash off that excess sweat as soon as you can after a workout. If a full shower isn’t an option, make it a priority to cleanse your face, where the skin is most sensitive to breakouts and other issues. And change your clothes if you can.
If you exercise in a gym, wiping off equipment before you use it and making sure you clean your hands before you touch your face can also help reduce the transfer of dirt and bacteria.
Make sure you remove your makeup before exercising too – makeup can easily mix with sweat to block your pores and cause issues.
Finally, don’t forget to hydrate. Losing water through sweat can leave you dehydrated, which is bad for your overall health and can make your skin look dry and dull.
Avoid issues by drinking plenty of fluids before, during, and after exercise.
While your skin works hard to keep your body temperature in check while you exercise, getting hot is an inevitable consequence of being physically active. However, this can be bad news for anyone who experiences skin conditions like rosacea.
According to a survey by the National Rosacea Society, 80% of people with rosacea experience flare-ups after exercising. The condition is often exacerbated by heat, so these findings are no surprise.
However, the survey also found that modifying your workout can reduce the risk of triggering a flare-up.
Rosacea isn’t the only condition that can be made worse by exercise. Eczema is another – both the raised skin temperature and the salt from sweat can cause itching and dryness.
And even those of us who don’t experience rosacea or eczema may find the heat and sweat of exercise cause our thighs to chafe or even gives us a heat rash.
Some suggestions for avoiding overheating while exercising include:
Working out somewhere that has air conditioning
Moving your workouts to a cooler time of day, such as first thing in the morning
Reducing the intensity of your exercise
Doing shorter workouts
Using a spray bottle or a damp cloth to help you stay cool
If you’re struggling with thigh chafing, you can also prevent issues by choosing your clothing carefully. Look for shorts or leggings that are long enough to cover the area where you experience chafing to protect your skin from damage.
For all of us, wearing exercise clothes that are made from breathable fabric can help keep our skin cool and comfortable. Synthetic fabrics can sometimes irritate sensitive skin (and are often derived from petroleum), so you may prefer to opt for natural fibres instead.
3. Sun Damage
We hear it all the time – protecting our skin from the sun is the best thing we can do to keep it healthy and reduce lines and wrinkles. Around 80% of visible facial ageing is said to be caused by sun damage, so this is definitely something we need to be diligent about if we want to look after our skin.
Exercise itself doesn’t cause sun damage, obviously. But many of us love to take our workouts outside. If your preferred way of getting moving involves walking, running, cycling, swimming, or playing sports in the great outdoors, remembering to protect your skin from the sun is a must.
Hopefully, you already apply SPF to your face daily. When spending time outside, including during exercise, make sure to extend this to any area of skin that will be exposed to the sun. Choose a sun cream that is waterproof and at least factor 30.
Don’t forget to reapply your sun cream if you’ll be exercising outside for longer periods. Stick to the shade where possible and try to opt for times of day when the sun is less intense – before 10 am and after 4 pm.
Even in winter and on cloudy days, UV rays can still cause skin damage, so don’t skip protection, even when it doesn’t seem like you need it.
The Pros Outweigh the Cons…
Yes, exercise can sometimes cause skin issues, but there’s plenty you can do to mitigate these negative effects. Overall, the benefits of exercise for our skin and our overall wellbeing vastly outweigh any potential issues.
The most important thing is to find a form of exercise you enjoy. Don’t worry about being the best – it isn’t about how fast you can run or how much you can lift. Instead, exercise should be about taking care of yourself, having fun, and exploring what your body can do.
Not only will this give your skin’s health a boost, but it helps you feel happier and healthier on the inside too.
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Sources and further reading:
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Simmons, G. H., Wong, B. J., Holowatz, L. A., & Kenney, W. L. (2011). Changes in the control of skin blood flow with exercise training: where do cutaneous vascular adaptations fit in?. Experimental physiology, 96(9), 822–828. https://doi.org/10.1113/expphysiol.2010.056176
Farage, M. A., Miller, K. W., Elsner, P., & Maibach, H. I. (2013). Characteristics of the Aging Skin. Advances in wound care, 2(1), 5–10. https://doi.org/10.1089/wound.2011.0356
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