Best Exercises When You Have Atopic Dermatitis

Medically Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on March 06, 2024
4 min read

Working out keeps you healthy, but when you have atopic dermatitis (AD), sweat and a change in body temperature can also trigger a flare-up. How can you enjoy exercise but still avoid itchy, sensitive skin?

Sweating is like your body’s natural air conditioning -- it cools it down when it gets too hot. It’s normal to sweat when you exercise or have a fever. It can also happen when you’re anxious or there’s a change in your hormones, like during menopause.

Water is the main element in sweat, and other minerals like sodium are mixed in. When you have eczema, sweat dehydrates your skin in two ways -- through fluid loss and the drying effects of sodium. These things work together to set off the cycle of dry skin, itching, and scratching, all signs of an AD flare.

People who live with eczema say sweating is one of their most common itch triggers. In one small study, 96% of those surveyed said sweating made their eczema worse. As a result, you may avoid activities that make you sweat, like exercise. But there are ways to enjoy the benefits of working out without working up too much of a sweat.

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve your health. It helps control your weight, lowers your chance of illnesses like heart disease and some cancers, and helps keep your brain sharp as you age. The best exercise is one that you enjoy and keeps sweat and AD flares at bay. Here are some ideas:

Low-intensity exercises

Exercises that make your heart pump hard are the ones most likely to make you sweat. Low-intensity sustained-state (LISS) exercises are workouts that keep your heart rate steady. You may sweat a little but should still be able to talk without much effort. Think about lower impact exercises or modified versions that will keep sweat to a minimum, such as:

  • Walking. If you want to stay out of the sun, take a stroll at a museum, shopping mall, or another large public area.
  • Swimming laps. Swimming and water aerobics are both low impact and good for your heart, joints, flexibility, and strength. If chlorine irritates your skin, you can try applying a layer of moisturizer before getting in the pool. Be sure to shower right away when you get out. If you can, ask someone on staff at the pool when the chlorine is usually added to the water, and see if you can schedule your swim at a time when most of it has evaporated. Be sure to avoid water with chlorine if it irritates your skin.
  • Strength training. You can use your body weight (pushups, pullups, crunches, leg squats), free weights, weight machines, or resistance bands.
  • Yoga. Focus on gentle styles of yoga, like Hatha.
  • Tai chi. This form of exercise includes slow, focused movements coupled with deep breathing.

Other ideas include light jogging, elliptical training, rowing, and cycling. The goal of LISS exercise is to work out for at least 30 minutes at 50% of your maximum heart rate. To figure out a rough estimate, subtract your age from 220 and divide that number by 2. For example, if you’re 44 years old:

  • 220 - 44 = 176
  • 176 / 2 = 88

So with LISS, a 44-year old should keep their heart rate to around 88 beats per minute. You can use a fitness tracker or take your pulse to monitor your heart rate. Keep in mind that although you’ll sweat less with LISS, it’ll take more time to see results compared to higher-intensity exercise.

Mini workouts

Instead of one long sweaty workout, why not break it up into mini sessions? Studies show similar health benefits between one lengthy session and several shorter workouts throughout the day. Mini workouts can also help if you’re too busy to exercise or just starting your fitness journey.

So if your typical activity lasts for 30 minutes, instead try three 10-minute sessions -- in the morning, afternoon, and evening. You can focus on one type of exercise in each workout:

  • Morning. Do bodyweight exercises like pushups, crunches, lunges, and squats
  • Afternoon. Take a quick walk at lunch.
  • Evening. Perform stretching exercises such as yoga.

Stay on track by buddying up with a workout partner and setting a reminder on your calendar.

Activity around the house

If the gym isn’t for you, it’s still possible to burn calories at home without breaking a sweat. Nonexercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, is the energy you burn outside of sleeping, eating, or exercising. Here’s a look at some everyday activities and how many calories a 185 to 200-pound person can expect to burn in 30 minutes:

  • Vacuuming (166 calories)
  • Mowing the lawn using a push mower (231 calories)
  • Washing the car by hand (189 calories)
  • Shoveling snow by hand (252 calories)
  • Playing with your kids (168 calories)
  • Raking and bagging leaves (168 calories)
  • Hand-washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen (300 calories)
  • Gardening (189 calories)

Whether you decide to go for a walk or plant flowers in your garden, here are some general tips to avoid an AD flare while you work out:

  • Drink water before, during, and after working out
  • Wear lightweight, breathable fabrics that won’t irritate your skin
  • Take frequent breaks
  • Use cooling towels or cold compression wraps
  • Keep a towel handy to wipe away sweat
  • Moisturize before and after a workout
  • Take warm or cool showers after you exercise instead of hot