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“A supercharged serum? A painful in-clinic treatment? A new ultra-blurring primer?” I asked my friend at a recent al fresco lunch date, as the sun highlighted her glowing complexion. “Nope, cardio,” she quipped, knowing that her skin exhibited the type of radiance she thought she left behind in her 20s. As it turned out, her revived visage wasn’t down to a fancy new beauty regimen (although it must be said, she’s diligent when it comes to skincare), but the result of her daily sweat session.
While we’re all well versed on the health benefits of exercise, growing evidence suggests it may also be responsible for evening out skin tone, flushing toxins and calming puffiness. “Apart from your liver, the skin is the biggest detoxifying agent. Sweating removes toxins which not only makes you feel better, it rejuvenates your skin,” says dermatologist Dr Shyamalar Gunatheesan. The premise is simple: when we push ourselves to the point of perspiration and that unpleasant shade of tomato red – a result of increased blood flow to the dermis – our skin is being sent essential nutrients, hormones and increased oxygen.
Sydney-based facialist Jocelyn Petroni says she seesa vast difference in the complexions of clients who exercise regularly, which she likens to a pregnancy glow. “Freshly exercised skin has an obvious rosy glow, however, it’s the day following exercise where we see the real benefits that oxygen-rich blood has on our skin,” says Petroni, who maintains the complexion of many high-profile clients, including health and fitness advocate Michelle Bridges.
“Increased circulation carries blood to feed the skin nutrients, hormones and oxygen from the inside, which gives the skin a healthy glow and plump appearance.”
Research touting the positive link between physical activity and our skin isn’t extensive (after all, the verdict is unanimous: exercise is good for us), but a 2014 study by researchers at Canada’s McMaster University found that exercising can actually reverse skin ageing (even when it’s taken up later in life), and that people who exercised regularly sported younger-looking skin than their peers.
One of the most common misconceptions about exercise is that it leads to breakouts.
“Some people feel that if you’ve got sweat sitting on your skin it will cause acne,” says Gunatheesan. “Sweat is just a toxin secretion, which doesn’t actually clog your pores as people may think.” In fact, a powerful cardio workout may do quite the opposite. Exercise reduces inflammation (one of the main causes of acne), plus it levels out cortisol, the ‘stress’ hormone, which, among other things, can trigger flare-ups.
As for collagen production, the jury’s still out on whether exercise really does dial it up. “There’s no real evidence,” says Gunatheesan, “but it improves muscle tone, and that can give the appearance of skin just looking a lot better.” Manually working the muscles in your face, however, either through a brawny facial or daily facial exercises, can help to release toxins and encourages blood flow for a plumper complexion.
It should be noted that simply raising your heart rate won’t automatically grant you a flawless visage, and some skin concerns are exacerbated by vigorous activity. “There are certain conditions that get worse with exercise, like rosacea,” explains Gunatheesan, adding that anything that promotes blood flow to the skin may dial up redness.
While many trainers urge their clients to switch up their workout to boost interest, swapping out intense, repetitive motions can also help your skin in the long run. “A long-term disadvantage for athletes is that the skin’s collagen and fibrous tissues (along with fatty cells) are thinned and the skin is less supported,” says Petroni. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the repetitive impact of pounding the pavement or other unforgiving surfaces can result in sagging facial muscles. While this could also be due to fat loss, perhaps not a direct result of persistent running, interspersing low-intensity interval-training workouts or a more gentle yoga session can be beneficial. Likewise, there is mounting evidence to suggest heat-centric activities, such as Bikram yoga and infrared sauna, may actually worsen pigmentation.
Topically, what we put on our skin pre- and post-workout can amp up the benefits. Knowing that many women head straight from the boardroom to barre, Clinique has launched Fit, a range of sweat-proof moisturisers, lip and cheek tints and post workout essentials. “We know women are wearing make-up to the gym or to workout, but still want to take care of their skin,” says Kerry Stenzler, state education manager for Clinique. “If you’re going to wear make-up to work out in, it needs to belong-lasting, lightweight and not clog pores or cause breakouts.”
Post-workout, resist the urge to over-scrub, says Gunatheesan, as frictional irritation can aggravate the skin. Instead, opt for a gentle cleanser to slough away sweat and debris. And it may seem common knowledge, but it bears repeating, that if you’re exercising outside, slather on a good quality SPF. Moreover, tying your hair into a top knot can deter pore-clogging oils from gravitating towards the skin during a workout. After all, this is all in the name of glowing skin, not an oil slick.
This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Vogue Australia