The Scientific Reasons That Exercise Can Give You Better-Looking Skin
Find out how physical activity impacts skin cells, decreases stress, and improves sleep — all factors that can give you a younger-looking complexion.
The pursuit of breakout-free, younger-looking skin isn’t all about a stellar skin-care routine. In truth, it’s all about a healthy lifestyle: what you eat, a de-stressing routine — and exercise.
You may have considered physical activity only in the context of something you do to keep your heart strong and maintain your weight, but regularly moving your body also plays a vital role in skin health and appearance.
Immediate effects of exercise include “increased blood flow to the skin and increased lymph flow, which decreases eye puffiness,” says Leslie Baumann, MD, a dermatologist in Miami and author of The Skin Type Solution. So long as you aren’t managing an underlying skin condition, you’re left with a more radiant glow. (Indeed, exercise can worsen symptoms of conditions like eczema, per the National Eczema Association, and rosacea, according to the National Rosacea Society.)
When it comes to skin aging, though, the benefits of exercise are numerous.
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Exercise May Create Changes in Skin on a Cellular Level
Let’s take a dive into skin’s cells. Each cell has mitochondria, the engines of the cell. “They make [a chemical] known as ATP that fuels all cell functions. ATP is needed to repair skin damage and make components that keep skin young, like collagen and hyaluronic acid,” says Dr. Baumann. (ATP stands for adenosine 5’-triphosphate, according to the journal Nature.)
With age, however, mitochondria start to make less ATP, says Baumann: “No medications or therapies have yet been shown to increase the number of mitochondria or restore them to their younger functional abilities.”
Except there’s one thing that does: exercise. She points to a paper published in February 2019 in the Annual Review of Physiology that concluded exercise may reverse these mitochondrial changes within muscle. Another study published in March 2018 in the journal Aging Cell looked at the muscle cells from older male and female lifetime cyclists, and found that their muscles had the same qualities and function of a person decades younger.
And while these studies are focused on muscle appearance and function, not skin, their conclusions point to what may be going on with our complexion in regards to exercise and aging. “Exercise has been shown to improve mitochondrial function, especially in skeletal muscle. We don’t know for sure that it has an effect on skin mitochondria, but it’s possible,” says Baumann.
One cross-sectional study published in August 2015 in Aging Cell did compare the skin function between active people and couch potatoes. They found “that skin from older athletes was healthier than that of older sedentary folks,” says Mark Tarnopolsky, MD, PhD, study coauthor and director of the Neuromuscular and Neurometabolic Clinic at McMaster University Medical Center in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. In particular, the dermis (the second layer of skin, as the American Academy of Dermatology notes) was thicker; thinning of the dermis is associated with sagging and wrinkles, he says. What may be going on? A substance involved in the immune system called IL-15 is released during exercise. An increase in IL-15 “is one factor that helps skin health,” he says.
Ultimately, it all comes down to cellular energy. “These findings indicate that exercise can attenuate some aspects of skin aging in humans and that these changes are associated with improvements in skin mitochondria,” Tarnopolsky and his coauthors wrote in the study.
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Exercise Has an Indirect Effect on Skin Aging by Bettering Sleep and Lowering Stress
You know the feeling of elation after a good workout? Maybe it’s because you’re happy you’re off the treadmill, but it’s also likely a product of endorphins, which are feel-good hormones. And, in essence, those endorphins talk to your skin. “Skin cells have endorphin receptors. Endorphins affect skin cells in ways we do not fully understand, but it seems to be beneficial,” says Baumann. Previous research has also shown that exercise helps buffer the effects of stress, and reduces levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, according to Harvard Health. While stress is both normal and inevitable, chronic stress is not healthy for your skin.
“Recent research has confirmed skin both as an immediate stress perceiver and as a target of stress responses,” wrote the authors of a study published in June 2014 in Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. Stress has been implicated as a trigger for psoriasis and atopic dermatitis symptoms and acne breakouts, and it may also compromise the skin’s barrier, which is what keeps potential allergens out and prevents irritation.
To respond to stress, the body releases cortisol, which in turn increases blood sugar levels, explains Baumann. “Increased blood sugar causes glycation, a process in which sugar binds to a protein such as collagen and damages it. This leads to skin aging,” she says.
Also consider that people who exercise report better sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation, and getting enough sleep (for adults the recommendation is seven to nine hours per night), is a bona fide technique for managing stress, per a study published in April 2018 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Stay calm, and your complexion benefits.
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The Best Types of Exercise for Improving Skin Health
There are two ways to look at this. When you’re looking to change your skin at the cellular level by boosting mitochondrial function, weight and endurance training is your best bet, says Baumann.
Dr. Tarnopolsky says high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may also create adaptations that are similar to endurance exercise. “I suspect that the effects on skin would be similar,” he adds.
Also consider what exercise tends to help you de-stress and sleep best. Yoga might come to mind immediately, and it’s true that yoga can fight stress, though Baumann says that there’s no evidence to suggest that the zen practice is particularly good at improving skin. Still, one constant remains: The best exercise is the one that you enjoy.
Ultimately, it may not be about one specific exercise, but that you’re following a regular routine that makes you excited to break a sweat so that you do it consistently. “I notice in my patients who exercise a lot, their skin seems tighter. It’s just an impression I have, though, and a study needs to be done,” says Baumann. Don’t wait for that research to come out. The whole-body benefits of exercise aren’t a mystery, so go pack your gym bag or lace up your running shoes today.
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