Exercise and Your Skin

This content originally appeared on The Oz Blog.
By Elizabeth Hale, MD

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, it has been said that the average American puts on about 1-2 pounds, with overweight and obese Americans often gaining up to five. For me, personally, I choose to try everything in moderation, rather than depriving myself of the delicious festive food and drinks. But, the strategy that helps me the most is making sure that, despite the deviations I might make from my usually healthy diet, I always maintain my commitment to regular exercise. If anything, I even try to increase the amount of exercise I do this time of year, so my efforts the rest of the year don’t all go to waste.

So, in essence, I exercise extra from Thanksgiving to New Year’s so I can eat more without feeling guilty! But, in addition to that, I exercise so I can look and feel my best.

The benefits of exercise extend well beyond musculoskeletal and cardiac. Exercise can have tremendously positive effects on the skin. Regular exercise can increase blood flow to the skin, which gives us a naturally rosy complexion to help us exude a healthy and positive glow. When people don’t get regular exercise, their skin can look sallow and dull. Another benefit of the increased blood flow to the skin is an improved ability to clear away toxins. Our skin is the first barrier to the outside world, and we are exposed to many environmental toxins and pollutants on a daily basis. These toxins can generate free radicals that damage our cells. By increasing circulation, we are better able to clear away these potentially harmful molecules, before they cause damage to our skin.

As much as I am a proponent of regular exercise for improving the skin, mind and body, certain steps need to be taken to protect your skin’s health and to keep you looking your best.

People who exercise outdoors need to remember that UV damage can occur 365 days a year, so a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher is always necessary. Skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States. Up to 90% of skin cancers are related to UV exposure, but ALSO, 90% of the signs of premature aging of the skin are attributed to over-exposure to the sun. And, most of the sun damage we get is incidental, i.e. it’s not just about going to the beach. Many sunscreens are available in water resistant and sweat proof formulas that won’t run into your eyes. Another strategy is to exercise outdoors early in the morning or later in the day, when the sun is not too strong. When I run outdoors, I always wear sunglasses and a hat.

Another common complaint I see in my office every day in active people is exercise-related breakouts. The most common is a condition called folliculitis which occurs when the common bacteria that live on the skin get into hair follicles, triggering inflamed, red bumps and pimples. The most important strategy to prevent this is to change out of your sweaty clothes quickly, after finishing your workout. For women, it is especially important to remove any tight fitting sweaty garments, like sports bras. The upper back is a very common area for folliculitis, so removing the sports bra and washing off immediately is paramount in preventing this annoying occurrence. If it is impossible to shower right away, carry some cleansing cloths with you in your gym bag. And, the best wash to prevent exercise-induced acne and folliculitis is actually over the counter! A topical medication, body wash or soap with the active ingredient benzoyl peroxide may help kill the bacteria that cause folliculitis, though if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or using other acne medications, be sure to consult your doctor before use. It is available in many OTC preparations, so look for it in your local drug store.

So, as the holiday season arrives, remember to enjoy the time with your family and friends, and to find time to fit exercise into your routine. It will help stave off those extra pounds and will keep your skin looking and feeling healthier!