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These are questions that have puzzled exercise scientists for some time, and studies have not confirmed one way or the other whether exercise will make your skin look younger. To do so, exercise would need to improve your complexion and tighten your skin. Some people believe that exercise will tighten skin and reduce wrinkles through increases in collagen or from muscles toning and pulling the skin tight. On the other hand, there are people who suggest that exercise (particularly weight lifting) causes more wrinkles from the act of straining and muscles pulling on the skin. And then there are still others who suggest that the increase in circulation clears the skin of toxins and may contribute to more youthful-looking skin. However, none of these claims have been confirmed, and so it's unclear if these effects occur, and if they do, to what degree or in whom they will occur more frequently.
There are, however, a few interesting studies that may come close to answering your question. One of them has to do with the effect of exercise on acne. Some people believe that exercise helps clear acne, either by removing toxins or perhaps by reducing stress, while others claim that exercise and sweating increase the symptoms of acne. In one study, investigators looked at the effect of exercise on acne appearing on the truncal area (primarily the back) in two groups of physically active men. Men in both groups were instructed to work out long enough to break a sweat, and keep it up five days a week for two weeks. Group one showered one hour after exercise, and group two waited four hours to shower. No differences in acne were noted in either group. It's not known if the same effect occurs in the skin on the face, but it's possible. More studies need to be done to prove it one way or the other.
In a twist on the positive effects of exercise on skin, one might consider the negative effects of exercise and what you can do to prevent the changes associated with aging. In one study, researchers investigated the effects of exercise and sweating in the sun on the incidence of skin cancer. The connection is that sweating in the sun may increase photosensitivity of the skin, which in turn increases the risk of sunburn and UV-related skin damage. This type of sunburn-related skin damage is associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. It is recommended that individuals reduce UV exposure during exercise by choosing training and competition schedules during times of day when sun exposure is low, by wearing protective clothing (hats, light-colored clothing), and liberally using water-resistant sunscreens.
Despite the lack of studies proving that exercise will make your skin look younger, most of us have experienced the "glow" that occurs with exercise, and there's nothing like the fresh, crisp, feeling you get in your cheeks after a run, walk, or bike ride in cool weather. Not only that, but as we all know, exercise will make you stronger, more flexible, healthier, fitter, improve your endurance and your balance, and increase your energy. In those ways, it will make you "younger" no matter how old you are or how your skin looks. Keep up with regular exercise. It's worth it!
Medically reviewed by Robert Bargar, MD; Board Certification in Public Health & General Preventive Medicine
"Exercise and Physical Activity"
National Institute on Aging