Exercise Your Body -- and Your Skin

Last Editorial Review: 6/6/2005

Lifting weights, doing aerobic workouts, and stretching into a yoga pose all benefit your skin as well as your body

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD

Most of the time, exercise conjures up images of losing weight, building muscle, and trimming thighs. But now, doctors say, another body part may benefit from regular workouts -- your skin.

Indeed, from reducing acne breakouts to fighting the signs of aging, health experts say regular exercise can play a big role in how young and how healthy your skin looks and feels.

"It's no secret that exercise has important benefits for the entire body. But what many people don't realize is that our skin is the largest organ of our body, and thus, the benefits can be enormous," says Audrey Kunin, MD, a Kansas City, Mo., dermatologist and author of The DERMAdoctor Skinstruction Manual.

Among them, says Kunin, is increased circulation and delivery of nutrients to skin cells, whooshing away potentially damaging toxins. Another is giving skin the optimum conditions for making collagen, the support fibers that help keep wrinkles and lines at bay.

But perhaps the most dramatic effects of exercise are on acne-prone skin. Doctors say working out provides many benefits that can help clear the skin. How? Exercise mediates the production of testosterone-related hormones such as DHEA and DHT.

"There's a lot of indirect evidence that shows that when you exercise your level of stress diminishes. So your adrenal glands are producing less of these male-type hormones that are part of any acne flare-up," says David Berman, MD, medical director and dermatologic/cosmetic surgeon at the Berman Skin Institute, Palo Alto, Calif., and former chief of dermatology at Santa Clara County Hospital.

If you want proof, says Berman, think about any situation that increased your stress level -- finishing a term paper or job project on deadline -- and you're likely to recall a breakout.

"Almost everyone's skin flares when they are under stress but especially those who already have acne," says Berman.

Exercise, he says, can help control it. "By reducing stress, it tends to quiet the adrenals. There is less hormone output which in turn helps control acne," says Berman.

According to dermatologist David Goldberg, MD, regular exercise also increases sweating, which in turn can unclog pores and have a positive effect on breakouts.

"In the long run, people who exercise have a better complexion overall. If they have acne, it's better controlled, and if they have occasional breakouts they are definitely less severe, and clear quicker and easier," says Goldberg, director of Skin Laser and Surgery Specialists of N.Y./N.J., and a clinical professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

Kunin agrees and says this same hormone-reducing activity can also benefit your hair.

"Anything that controls the amount of male hormones your body produces can impact not only skin, but also androgenic hair loss. Anything you can do to reduce the production of these hormones is going to have beneficial results on both skin and hair," Kunin tells WebMD.

While we don't often think of exercise has having any specific anti-aging effects on skin, experts say it most definitely does.

One is by influencing the natural production of collagen, a kind of connective tissue that plumps your skin and gives your face the bloom of youth.

"Our fibroblasts, which are the collagen-producing cells in the skin, became fewer in number and they become lazy as we get older," says Kunin. Skin becomes less firm, drier, and even more wrinkled.

However, add an exercise routine to your beauty regimen and Kunin says you infuse skin cells with oxygen as well as other nutrients. Both set up ideal conditions for collagen production.

"Give your skin what it needs to function properly and it's going to behave better and look younger," says Kunin.

And when it comes to looking good, Kunin says certain exercises can even help break up pockets of cellulite -- that cottage cheese-like skin on the buttocks, backs of thighs, and upper arms. This forms, she says, when fibrous connections in skin are pulled tighter, leading to puckering in pockets of fat.

By toning and pulling the muscles with workouts such as Pilates or weight training, Kunin says you reverse that tension, which reduces the appearance of cellulite.

"If you are properly hydrating yourself during exercise you will get better blood flow."

It's a secret yoga instructors have known for years.

"Stretching tones and conditions the muscles. Skin attached to those muscles becomes firm and beautiful," says Vasanthi Bhat, founder of Vasantha Yoga Health and Fitness in Santa Clara, Calif.

Indeed, Bhat says that yoga stretches, along with controlled and conscious breathing not only helps tone the entire body, but facial muscles as well. This, he suggests, can deliver results similar to a face-lift.

"Backward bending poses such as fish, camel, and cobra have the power of a face-lift if done regularly, while forward bending poses such as child pose, bowing pose, and modified headstand bring a rich blood supply to the facial skin," says Bhat.

Goldberg tells WebMD that if you exercise the body, you may also influence the rate at which your face ages. Why?

"Initially exercise helps tone and tightens muscles but a muscle that is well toned is also more pliable, meaning that it is holding less tension," says Goldberg.

When you exercise, he says, your whole body tends to relax, including the muscles in your face.

"Eventually crow's feet and anger expression lines are going to soften up. Certainly you will prevent new ones from forming. So in this respect regular exercise can help you to look younger longer," Goldberg adds.

Beyond helping your muscles relax, doctors say most aerobic exercise, such as walking or bicycling, also offer a "cleansing" effect on skin. This helps remove toxins that assault the skin --like cigarette smoke, air pollution, even chemicals commonly found in grooming products such as hair spray, deodorant, and shower gels.

"The better your circulation, which is something aerobic exercise can improve, the more effectively toxins are removed. The better and healthier your skin will not only be, but also look," says Goldberg.

Folks who exercise, he adds, clearly have better color to their skin -- a rosy pink glow, as compared to a yellow-green or ashen grey cast - compared with those who don't.

What can help your skin even more: Hydrating your body before and after exercise.

"If you are properly hydrating yourself during exercise you will get better blood flow to the skin, which in turn encourages the elimination of toxins that would otherwise accumulate in the skin cells," Berman tells WebMD. This, he says, is particularly true for those who overindulge in alcohol, drugs, or even junk food.

"Proper fluid intake -- water in particular -- can increase skin blood flow, allowing the washing out of those toxins, which in turn will help skin not only look better but also be healthier," says Berman.

When Exercise Won't Help Your Skin

Our experts agree that facial exercises, movements designed specifically to tone the muscles of the face, aren't likely to help your skin. Often done with progressive resistance devices held in the mouth or with "beauty calisthenics" using specific movements of the facial muscles, the effects are temporary at best, doctors say.

"While you are stimulating the muscle with the exercise it will twitch and tighten, but it won't last. When the muscles sag in your face it's directly related to gravity. You could tighten it all you want and it's not going to have any permanent effect," says Goldberg.

Kunin agrees: "It's not the muscles on the face that keep skin taut, it's the fat content underneath the skin that keeps your face looking young. You cannot sculpt a cheek bone like you build a bicep."

Also, Kunin warns that facial exercises might just cause you to develop more lines and creases in your face or enhance those that are already there from overusing the facial muscles.

"Forget facial exercises and just exercise your whole body. That's when you'll see some pretty spectacular changes in the way your face looks and feels," says Kunin.

Published May 2005.

SOURCES: Audrey Kunin, MD, director, DermaDoctor.com; and author of The DERMAdoctor Skinstruction Manual. David Goldberg, MD, clinical professor, dermatology, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; and director, Skin Laser And Surgery Specialists of N.Y./N.J. David Berman, MD, medical director and dermatologic/cosmetic surgeon, Berman Skin Institute, Palo Alto, Calif.; and former chief of dermatology, Santa Clara County Hospital. Vasanthi Bhat, yoga teacher; author; publisher; and founder, Vasantha Yoga Health and Fitness Center, San Jose, Calif.

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