"We tend to focus on the cardiovascular benefits of physical activity, and those are important. But anything that promotes healthy circulation also helps keep your skin healthy and vibrant," says dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD, author of Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman's Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin and associate professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
If you have dermatological conditions such as acne, rosacea, or psoriasis, you may need to take special care to keep your skin protected while exercising. But don't let skin problems prevent you from being active. Here's why.
By increasing blood flow, exercise helps nourish skin cells and keep them vital. "Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to working cells throughout the body, including the skin," says Marmur. In addition to providing oxygen, blood flow also helps carry away waste products, including free radicals, from working cells. Contrary to some claims, exercise doesn't detoxify the skin. The job of neutralizing toxins belongs mostly to the liver. "But by increasing blood flow, a bout of exercise helps flush cellular debris out of the system," Marmur tells WebMD. "You can think of it as cleansing your skin from the inside."
Exercise has also been shown to ease stress. "And by decreasing stress, some conditions that can be exacerbated by stress can show some improvement," says Brian B. Adams, MD, associate professor and director of the Sports Dermatology Clinic at the University of Cincinnati. Conditions that can improve when stress is reduced include acne and eczema. Although researchers are still investigating the link between stress and skin, studies show that the sebaceous glands, which produce oil in the skin, are influenced by stress hormones.
Regular exercise helps tone muscles, of course. That doesn't have a direct affect on skin, dermatologists say. But firmer muscles definitely help you look better overall.
The Healthy Skin Workout
For all its many benefits, however, exercise can pose risks to your skin. Fortunately, protecting your skin is easy.
"The main danger if you exercise outdoors is sun exposure," says April Armstrong, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of California, Davis. Sunburns increase skin cancer risk and rapidly age the skin, erasing any benefits your skin might get from exercise. The best advice is to avoid exercising outside during peak sun time, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
If you have to work out during peak sun time, however, wear sunscreen. "A lot of athletes are reluctant to put on sunscreen because it gets into their eyes when they sweat and stings," says Marmur. "But new Ph-balanced sunscreens are now available that don't sting." If you have naturally oily skin or problems with acne, choose a gel or oil-free product or the latest innovation, powder laced with SPF protection.
Don't count of sunscreen alone to protect you, however. "Sweating can remove the sunscreen that athletes put on and there is evidence that sweating actually increases the chance of burning," Adams tells WebMD. "After athletes sweat, it takes 40% less ultraviolet rays to burn than when they are not sweating." For added protection, wear clothes that cover as much skin as possible and a hat to shade your face, if possible.
Another skin problem that can arise during activity is chafing, which can cause rashes. For people prone to acne, the irritation and increased perspiration caused by tight-fitting workout clothes may lead to a form of acne aptly called acne mechanica. "The two keys to prevention are to wear moisture-wicking clothing, such as bras and hats, to keep skin drier and cooler and to shower immediately after exercising," says Adams. Wearing loose-fitting workout clothes can also help. Make sure your skin is clean before you work out to prevent clogged pores that lead to acne. Avoid wearing makeup when you exercise. After showering, apply a soothing skin moisturizer or powder to help prevent skin irritation.
Rx for Exercise-Related Skin Problems
Several other skin conditions can be exacerbated by physical activity, including rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. That's no reason not to exercise, dermatologists say. The benefits of exercise outweigh any temporary problems it can cause. And there are simple strategies to prevent flare-ups when you work out.
For rosacea sufferers, increased body temperature and the skin flushing that accompany exercise can cause flare-ups. The best strategy, dermatologists say, is to exercise in a cool environment. "One of the best choices is swimming, since the water keeps skin cool even when you build up body temperature," Marmur told WebMD. (Be sure to moisturize your skin afterward, however, since chlorine has a drying effect.) Brisk walking in an air-conditioned mall or waiting until the cool of the evening to jog outside are other good options. "If you do get flushed and overheated while exercising, apply cool compresses to problem areas of the skin immediately after your workout," says Andrea Cambio, MD, a private practice dermatologist in Cape Coral, Fla.
Eczema or psoriasis sufferers can also experience flare-ups after strenuous activity, usually caused by salt from perspiration. Marmur recommends spreading on a moisturizer before a workout to provide protection from sweat. Be especially careful to moisturize your arms and legs and areas with skin creases, such as underarms and groin. If possible, exercise in a cool environment to reduce perspiration and the need for showering after exercise. Washing too often can cause dryness and exacerbate eczema and psoriasis.
"Physical activity can definitely pose a challenge, but we encourage all our patients with psoriasis and eczema to exercise to improve their overall health," says Armstrong. Despite the occasionally temporary flare-ups, she adds, many patients see their conditions improve in the long term.