exercise and acne: move your body for clear skin

whether you are a yoga mat-toting cyclist or a gym rat with a penchant for the elliptical, working out is an important ritual for many of us – it’s our way of shedding daily stress while doing something positive for our physical bodies. daily movement of some kind, be it taking a walk during your lunch break, choosing the stairs over the escalator, going on a robust run or attending a barre class, has been linked to better digestion, better moods and more vibrant heart health. and if you struggle with persistent acne, finding the right balance of exercise and movement is crucial for maintaining healthy skin.

how exercise benefits the skin, the body and the mind

if improved overall health isn’t enough to get you off the couch and into some jumping jacks, here are a few more tantalising reasons to regularly move your body. 

  1. exercise eases stress and helps regulate mood. exercise releases the chemical norepinephrine, which helps the brain adapt to all types of stress. physical movement also releases endorphins, our happiness chemicals, and dopamine, our reward chemical. ever hear of runner’s high? it’s just the endorphins kicking in after intense energy expenditure. some studies have shown that exercise can be as effective an anti-depressant as prescription medication for some people.1 and since stress is linked to the development of acne, reducing stress by taking up some physical activity is a great step on your journey to clear skin. so get moving!
  2. exercise helps us stay sharp as a tack. not only has regular exercise been linked to an increased longevity of brain cells, it is now a common recommendation by doctors as an important step in staving off alzheimer’s. how does it work? exercising boosts the chemicals in the brain that help keep the hippocampus, our memory center, running as a well-oiled machine. exercise has also been linked to neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells, which primes us for a lifetime of learning and an enviable quick-wittedness.2
  3. confidence and self-worth skyrocket. this one is fairly obvious, but exercising can help boost self-esteem and self-image. because we know that movement is good for our physical bodies, this often translates to feeling better about ourselves overall. the more you move, the better you feel!
  4. exercise can help create vivacious skin. a recent study shows that regular exercise can help slow signs of aging by increasing circulation and oxygen flow to the skin around the face and by contributing to the growth of collagen.3 regular light exercise in combination with an anti-inflammatory diet and a non-comedogenic skin regimen can have powerful effects on skin health.
  5. exercise improves sleep quality. consistent exercise over long periods of time has been shown to benefit quality and length of sleep.4 daytime physical activity promotes longer periods of slow-wave sleep, which is the deep restful shut-eye we all crave. the quality of our sleep shows in our skin – when we skimp on sleep, our skin doesn’t have the time and resources to heal itself.5  so move your body and drift peacefully into dreamland.
  6. the more we move, the more energy we have. regular exercise can have an astounding impact on our ability to sustain vibrant energy levels throughout the day. those who engage in regular physical activity generally report feeling more awake in the mornings and better able to maintain a stable energy level over the course of the day.6 say goodbye to that afternoon slump! 
  7. movement keeps things moving. if you ever feel a bit…backed up, try some yoga or a gentle jog around the block. physical activity helps move things along internally, acting as a sort of massage for the internal organs. light exercise also helps us absorb nutrients from our foods more readily.7 beware of digestive issues – sedentarism has been linked to the onset of many gastrointestinal diseases. smooth digestion is hugely important for skin health, so make sure you move your body to keep things moving.

exercising your way to clear skin

now that we know why we should exercise, let’s talk about how. exercise is a form of temporary stress on the body that ultimately leads to a greater good – it’s also known as a hormetic stressor. even though exercise temporarily activates the release of cortisol, our stress hormone, from our adrenal glands, low levels of exercise with plenty of rest in between are very beneficial to our overall health and help make us stronger. 

but for many of us, especially us women, exercising can easily spin out of control because of the societal pressures we face to look a certain way, to attain perfect beach bodies and six-pack abs. overexercising can be downright dangerous for women because of the specific ways in which women’s bodies respond to stress, and despite the benefits of movement, an overzealous approach to exercise can contribute to, rather than heal, acne. because exercise is a physical stressor on the body, it’s important to not go overboard and send the body into a state of chronic stress without recovery. chronic stress causes our adrenal glands to release higher levels of male sex hormones like dhea-s, which is later converted into testosterone, often setting the stage for acne along the jawline, oily skin, menstrual irregularities and hair growth.

so how do you know if you are overexercising? feeling sore and totally drained after a workout and into the next day is a sign that you are working out too hard. if you experience any of the above symptoms of hormonal imbalance in combination with the symptoms of overexercising, try scaling things back. try less intensive types of exercise like swimming, tennis, walking, and yoga, or reduce the number of days each week that you engage in taxing workouts. if you are used to running ten miles a day, try swapping out a day or two for a moderately strenuous hike. if high intensity interval training is your movement of choice, try dialing it back and alternating with yoga. listen to your body’s needs each day and honor them by finding activities that you enjoy that also work your body – tennis, hiking, or group sports like soccer or basketball always do the trick. and always make time to allow the body to rest and recuperate after workouts. remember to refuel your glycogen stores afterwards by eating plenty of carbohydrates and protein8 – fasting creates an added stress on the body and leaves you utterly deprived of precious energy. so don’t skimp on the nourishing food and remember to take plenty of rest days!

rather than stressing about incorporating 30 minutes of exercise into my daily routine, i try to get other forms of movement in where i can. i take the stairs whenever possible. if i drive to a grocery store, i park far from the entrance to get a few more steps in. i take breaks at work to do a few sets of squats, lunges or jumping jacks. i stretch often and i coordinate walking meetings at work, rather than meetings around the conference table. think outside the box to add little bits of movement to your routine rather than attempting to force a strict exercise regimen into an already hectic day.

packing your acne-safe gym bag

if you choose to get your kicks at the gym, here are a few tips for staying acne-safe in the process. if you have access to a shower, try to rinse off using your sS cleanser immediately following a sweaty workout. the last thing you want is a build-up of sweat and dead skin cells collecting to clog your precious pores. if you can’t get to a shower, try to at least rinse your face at the bathroom sink and follow up with some sS sterilizing toner on some toner pads. if you exercise in the evening, clean any makeup off your face beforehand in order to avoid any makeup creeping into your open pores while you’re getting your groove on on the treadmill. tie your hair up and away from your face and always wear breathable, loose-fitting clothing. and remember to keep your hands off your face during your workout – you never know where that kettlebell has been!

when building your acne-safe gym bag, be sure to include the following items:

  1. cleanser – use sS charcoal or hydrating cleanser immediately after a workout to wash away any lingering sweat.
  2. hydrating toner or sterilizing toner  – use either of these directly after cleansing to close those pores and to ensure that the bacteria from your sweat doesn’t spread.
  3. toner pads – keep plenty of these on hand to apply your toner either as part of your regimen or as a face wipe when you can’t access running water.
  4. sunscreen – whether you’re heading out into the sun or not, pop some sun protection onto your face before AND after working out.
  5. travel-size acne-safe shampoo, conditioner and body wash – these are important pieces of every gym bag that often go overlooked. this is especially important if you are prone to body acne.
  6. acne-safe makeup and clean brushes – if you wear makeup, check those ingredients and make sure nothing is gonna clog your pores! clean your brushes at least once a week with sS charcoal cleanser.
  7. clean towels and fresh clothes. make sure you are not reusing the same grimy gym towel over and over, day after day. just like changing out your pillowcases, swap out your towel for a fresh one every single day to avoid spreading bacteria.

let us know your favorite ways to add movement into your day along with the contents of your acne-safe gym bag!

footnotes

1. american psychological association. stress and exercise.
2. disalvo, d. (2013) how exercise makes your brain grow. forbes magazine. oct 13 2013.
3. safdar, a., et al. (2011) endurance exercise rescues progeroid aging and induces systemic mitochondrial rejuvenation in mtDNA mutator mice. pnas. 2011 mar; 108(10):4135–4140.
4. breus, m. (2013) better sleep found by exercising on a regular basis. psychology today. sep 6 2013.
5. kubota, y., et al. (2010) community-based epidemiological study of psychosocial effects of acne in japanese adolescents. journal of dermatology. 2010 jul;37(7):617-22.
6. fahmy, s. (2008) low-intensity exercise reduces fatigue symptoms by 65 percent, study finds. university of georgia today. feb 28 2008.
7. tauseef, a., et al. (2013) sleep, immunity and inflammation in gastrointestinal disorders. world journal of gastroenterology. 2013 dec 28; 19(48): 9231–9239.
8. chandler, r.m., et al. (1994) dietary supplements affect the anabolic hormones after weight-training exercise. journal of applied physiology. 1994 feb; 76(2):839-45.