The effect exercise has on skin

It is common knowledge that regular moderate physical exercise is beneficial for both the body and mind. However, it is less commonly known that exercise can result in numerous positive effects on the complexion too, beyond that of just the fresh-faced appearance immediately after training.

In fact, a study from the Journal of Gerontology in 20051 found that exercise may actually accelerate wound healing in healthy older adults. The study reported that moderate exercise increased how fast wounds healed in old mice, which researchers speculated may have been due to an exercise-induced anti-inflammatory response in the wound. They found that the study participants who did regular cardio respiratory exercise during the trial had significantly faster healing wounds than those who did not exercise. This led to consideration that the improved healing response may possibly also be applied to humans as an important component of health care.

This study is just one of the many reported benefits of exercise on the skin; a separate study even found that specific exercises can help to improve the elasticity of facial and neck skin through the use of resistance training specifically created for facial muscles.

The 2016 study2> found that the parameters representing skin fatigue decreased and the parameters representing skin elasticity increased significantly when participants trained their facial muscles using the Kyunghee Facial Resistance Program (KFRP).3

This showed that the skin became more firm after the facial muscle resistance training, and it is not the only positive impact exercise has been found to have on ageing skin.

Exercise and ageing skin

After discovering that exercise could stave off or even undo the signs of early ageing in mice, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario were curious whether these findings could also be applied to humans to keep their skin from changing with age.4

An extract from an article about this study in the New York Times5, which was written by Gretchen Reynolds, said:

“To test that possibility, the scientists first gathered 29 local male and female volunteers ages 20 to 84. About half of the participants were active, performing at least three hours of moderate or vigorous physical activity every week, while the others were resolutely sedentary, exercising for less than an hour per week.”6

- Gretchen Reynolds -

Skin from the buttock was chosen for the study as the researchers wanted to examine skin that was not likely to have been frequently exposed to the sun. The researchers investigated the skin samples taking into consideration the participants’ exercise habits and found that after the age of 40, the men and women who exercised regularly had skin with a composition similar to a 20 to 30 year-olds’. This was even the case for participants who were aged over 65.

Diet, genes and other lifestyle factors were not taken into consideration for this study however, so the researchers asked the group of sedentary individuals aged 65 or over to start exercising and they found that after following an exercise plan of moderate cardiovascular exercise twice a week for 3 months, their skin had in fact also improved.

The participants’ skin was now similar in composition to a 20 to 40 year old’s. The only change that had been made in their lifestyle was to start exercising, so this resulted in the study findings showing that exercise can slow down the rate of skin ageing, even in those over 65.

How exercise changes skin composition is not completely clear from this study, but from a separate study, the researchers found that levels of certain substances created by working muscles promoting cell change were significantly higher on the skin of participants after they have been exercising.7

However, there is not yet any evidence that exercise reverses wrinkles and other sun damage.

How resistance training impacts the skin

In an article featured in the Telegraph8, celebrity trainer, Dalton Wong, explained there is a method of exercise that can actually play a part in improving skin toning in general:

“If you tone your body in the right way, you can also tone your skin. (…) The key in training to tone your skin is to focus on increasing lean muscle mass.”9

- Dalton Wong -

The article, which was written by Katy Young, explained that as we age our skin naturally loses its “plumping, youthful layer of fat”10, but that it is possible to build muscle which results in the same volumising effect for the skin because the lean muscle mass just under the skin’s surface can help to recreate that plump, taut look in the skin.

In the article, Wong explained that resistance training is more beneficial for this than cardiovascular exercise.

Resistance training is a form of exercise where a person’s muscles are forced to contract against some form of resistance, such as weights or even bodyweight. It improves muscular strength and endurance.

Whereas cardiovascular exercise is any form of exercise that raises your heart rate, exercising your heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels. It improves health and endurance, with examples including running, swimming, and cycling.

Although Wong’s advice is that resistance training is more beneficial for this specific advantage, the general advice given by fitness experts is that a combination of both cardiovascular and resistance training produces the best general results for health and fitness.

Exercise and free radicals

Some experts, however, have said that the impact exercise has on the skin is not all positive and that it may cause an increased level of free radical damage on the body11, which breaks down the skin’s supportive fibres.

Exercise increases the body’s oxygen usage12, which results in oxidation; the by-product of free radicals trying to find balance.

However, a 2008 study13 found that exercise is actually an antioxidant and that the antioxidant genes can be upregulated by training. The study, which was published in the Free Radical Biology and Medicine journal, concluded that exercise only causes oxidative stress, otherwise known as free radicals when it is exhaustive.

An extract from the journal states:

“Strenuous exercise causes oxidation of glutathione, release of cytosolic enzymes, and other signs of cell damage. However, there is increasing evidence that reactive oxygen species (ROS) not only are toxic but also play an important role in cell signalling and in the regulation of gene expression. Xanthine oxidase is involved in the generation of superoxide associated with exhaustive exercise. Allopurinol (an inhibitor of this enzyme) prevents muscle damage after exhaustive exercise, but also modifies cell signalling pathways associated with both moderate and exhaustive exercise in rats and humans.”14

The study found that moderate exercise caused the activation of certain pathways, resulting in the upregulation of powerful antioxidant enzymes, and the researchers, therefore, concluded: “Because these signals result in an upregulation of powerful antioxidant enzymes, exercise itself can be considered an antioxidant.”15

These results suggest that only very strenuous exercise leads to the signs of cell damage, whereas moderate exercise appears to have a rejuvenating effect on the skin. Moderate exercise is defined as working at 40-60% of a person’s maximum heart rate three to five times per week. The study also clarified that the detrimental effects of extreme exercise do not take effect until after 90 minutes of training at 70-80% of a person’s maximum heart rate.

It would, therefore, appear that although exercise can cause free radicals, the human body creates countermeasures to deal with some of the harmful effects of free radicals, as found in a study in 201316.

Asides from potential damage caused by free radicals in the long term, there have been many concerns over the short term effect of exercise on the skin. Due to the amount of sweat produced while exercising, there have been long-standing concerns over whether the sweat causes spots by blocking pores.

Exercise and acne 

In 2008, a study17 looking into the impact lifestyle has on adolescent acne reported no statistically significant differences in acne between the individuals in the study who showered immediately after exercise and those who waited at least four hours to shower.

The researchers concluded that larger studies were in fact needed to clarify whether exercise-induced sweating causes any aggravation of acne at all.

Despite the initial study’s findings in 2008, experts still recommend thoroughly cleansing the skin as soon as possible after exercise to rid the skin of sweat, as well as any dust or dead skin cells that may have adhered to the sweat. They advise this will decrease the risk of blocked pores, which can cause blemishes.

A product which could be used after exercise is Cleanse by griffin+row18. This skin cleanser helps to ensure all impurities, pollutants, and makeup are removed from the skin, leaving it feeling soft, clean and smooth.

Washing the skin with warm water and a gentle cleanser after exercise will clean the skin without causing irritation or dryness. If a person is unable to shower immediately after a workout, it is advised that they use a soft towel with warm water to wipe down and remove most of the sweat before washing thoroughly at their earliest convenience.

It is also advisable to wear loose, breathable, natural clothing when possible to allow the skin to breathe.

The general impact exercise has on the skin

The general impact of exercise on the skin appears to be positive, even from a simple level looking at the basic effect of exercise promoting healthy circulation, which helps to keep skin looking and feeling vibrant and healthy.

However, dermatologists warn fitness enthusiasts to be aware of some of the most common bothersome skin conditions19 related to exercise, including blisters and athletes foot. The experts advise gym goers to wear moisture-wicking socks and to never go barefoot in a health club.20

Taking into consideration the results from the various studies conducted over the years and advice from fitness experts, the general advice is that performing moderate exercise three to five times per week is highly beneficial for a person’s body, mind, and skin.

As many of the benefits were found to apply to all ages, including those over 65, it would appear that it is never too late to take up regular exercise and reap the many rewards it offers.

It is, however, advisable for each person to cleanse their skin thoroughly after exercise to prevent any unwanted build-up of sweat, dust or dead skin cells, which could potentially cause blemishes and even acne.


References and sources:

  1. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071128151747.htm. Original journal reference: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2007, December 4). Exercise May Play Role In Reducing Inflammation In Damaged Skin Tissue. ScienceDaily. 2007.
  2. Kim, K; Jeon, S; Kim JK; Hwang, JS. (2016). Effects of Kyunghee Facial Resistance Program (KFRP) on mechanical and elastic properties of skin. J Dermatolog Treat, 27(2). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26212214
  3. Kim, K; Jeon, S; Kim JK; Hwang, JS. (2016). Effects of Kyunghee Facial Resistance Program (KFRP) on mechanical and elastic properties of skin. J Dermatolog Treat, 27(2). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26212214
  4. Gretchen Reynolds. ‘Younger Skin Through Exercise’. NY Times (online). Available at: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/16/younger-skin-through-exercise/?ref=health
  5. Gretchen Reynolds. ‘Younger Skin Through Exercise’. NY Times (online). Available at: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/16/younger-skin-through-exercise/?ref=health
  6. Gretchen Reynolds. ‘Younger Skin Through Exercise’. NY Times (online). Available at: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/16/younger-skin-through-exercise/?ref=health
  7. Gretchen Reynolds. ‘Younger Skin Through Exercise’. NY Times (online). Available at: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/04/16/younger-skin-through-exercise/?ref=health
  8. Katy Young. ‘How diet and exercise can improve your complexion’. Telegraph (online). Available at: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/Article/TMG9956550/464/diet-exercise-improve-complexion.html
  9. Katy Young. ‘How diet and exercise can improve your complexion’. Telegraph (online). Available at: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/Article/TMG9956550/464/diet-exercise-improve-complexion.html
  10. Katy Young. ‘How diet and exercise can improve your complexion’. Telegraph (online). Available at: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/Article/TMG9956550/464/diet-exercise-improve-complexion.html
  11. Radak, Z; Zhao, Z; Koltai, E; Atalay, M. 2013. Oxygen consumption and usage during physical exercise: the balance between oxidative stress and ROS-dependent adaptive signalling. Antioid Redox Signal. 18 (10). Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22978553?dopt=AbstractPlus
  12. Sam Winston. ‘The truth about extreme exercise, oxidative stress, and your health’. Complete Human Performance (online). Available at: https://www.completehumanperformance.com/exercise-oxidative-stress/
  13. Gomez-Cabrera, MC; Domenech, E; Vina, J. 2008. Moderate exercise is an antioxidant: upregulation of antioxidant genes by training. Free Radic Biol Med. 44 (2). Retrieved from:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18191748
  14. Gomez-Cabrera, MC; Domenech, E; Vina, J. 2008. Moderate exercise is an antioxidant: upregulation of antioxidant genes by training. Free Radic Biol Med. 44 (2). Retrieved from:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18191748
  15. Gomez-Cabrera, MC; Domenech, E; Vina, J. 2008. Moderate exercise is an antioxidant: upregulation of antioxidant genes by training. Free Radic Biol Med. 44 (2). Retrieved from:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18191748
  16. Radak, Z; Zhao, Z; Koltai, E; Atalay, M. 2013. Oxygen consumption and usage during physical exercise: the balance between oxidative stress and ROS-dependent adaptive signalling. Antioid Redox Signal. 18 (10). Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22978553?dopt=AbstractPlus
  17. http://peds.stanford.edu/Rotations/adolescent_medicine/documents/NewInsightsIntoAdolescentAcne.pdf
  18. https://www.griffinandrow.com/product/skin-cleanser-cream/
  19. Author unknown. ‘Dermatologists warn fitness enthusiasts: Watch for exercise-related skin problems’. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071109195546.htm
  20. Author unknown. ‘Dermatologists warn fitness enthusiasts: Watch for exercise-related skin problems’. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/11/071109195546.htm

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