We all know what exercise does for our bodies: keeping them toned, sleeker, melting fat, lowering cholesterol and reducing cancer rates, busting stress, yada-yada-yada… But less well recognised is that exercise is your biggest beauty treatment of all – and as the words ‘Quantitative Easing’ still swirl ominously in our brains, it’s worth remembering that they’re f-r-e-e… What’s more, with autumn upon us, gorgeous crunchy leaves on the ground and breezes blowing in, is there a better time to get outdoors, lace up our shoes, and enjoy the beautifying benefits of exercise…?
From reducing acne breakouts to helping to defy time, health (and skin) experts are now saying that regular exercise can play an important role in how young and healthy your skin feels and looks. As Dr.Audrey Kunin, dermatologist and author of The DERMAdoctor Skinstruction Manual (you can find it in this country via www.amazon.co.uk) acknowledges: ‘It’s no secret that exercise has important benefits for the entire body. But what many people don’t realise is that the skin is the largest organ of the body, and so the benefits can be enormous.’
Aside from the benefits of increased circulation, which we’re probably all familiar with, exercise benefits the complexion by creating the right environment for your skin to build collagen – and collagen is one of the two most important elements (the other is elastin) in maintaining skin’s ‘bounce-back’ factor. (You know: that plumpness and springiness that youthful skin has, but which tends to diminish as the years tick by.) ‘Our fibroblasts – which are the collagen-producing cells in the skin – become fewer in number and “lazier” as we get older,’ says Dr. Kunin. But if you rev up your exercise regime, skin becomes infused with oxygen and other nutrients which set up ideal conditions for collagen production.
What is less well known is that exercise can also fight acne – and here, the results can be even more dramatic. Doctors now say that working out offers benefits that can help to clear even the most zit-prone skin. How so? Because exercise mediates the production of testosterone-related hormones such as DHEA and DHT. ‘There’s a lot of indirect evidence that shows when you exercise, your level of stress diminishes. And so your adrenal glands are producing less of these male-type hormones which are part of any acne flare-up,’ says US professor Dr. David Berman, a former chief of dermatology at Santa Clara County Hospital. (US experts, it emerges, are far more up-to-speed on exercise’s beauty bounty than anyone here in the UK.) If you want proof, says Dr. Berman, think back to any situation that turbo-charged your stress level – exams, or a job project on deadline – and you may recall a breakout. ‘Almost everyone’s skin flares up when they are under stress, but especially those who already have acne.’
Exercise, he says, can help to minimise those volcanic skin breakouts. ‘By reducing stress, it tends to quieten the adrenal glands,’ he says. ‘There is less hormone output, which in turn reduces acne.’ At the same time, regular exercise also increases sweating – which can un-clog blocked pores and have a positive effect on breakouts. So all in all, there are some very good reasons to encourage a couch-potato-ish teenager with problem skin to unshackle him- or herself from their Playstation, and lace up their Nikes. (Or at the very least, trade the Playstation for a Nintendo Wii Fit. We’ve got one in our house and the transformative effect on teenagers is, frankly, nothing less than miraculous: we no longer hear endless re-runs of Jennifer Aniston or Will Smith movies coming from the drawing room, but the Wimbledon-esque sound of balls being hit…) ‘In the long run,’ says Dr. David Goldberg, another skin specialist (he’s clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Centre in New York), ‘people who exercise have a better complexion overall. And if they have occasional breakouts, they are definitely less severe, and clear quicker and easier.’
Exercise may even do some of the line-relaxing work of, say, Botox. This might seem incongruous since the first apparent benefits of exercise are a tightening and tautening process that gives better tone to muscles (and famously, of course, helps to sleek the silhouette). But with continued exercise, your muscles pass this stage and start to relax; through this relaxation anger expression lines and crow’s feet actually start to soften, and future lines will be slower in coming.
I have one more theory about the beauty benefits of exercise, too – though it’s just personal observation, in this case. Having now gone to a Yoga class two, three (and in a good week, four) times a week for the past four years, my hair is now growing like grass; I have to have it trimmed more often than my lawn. And I’m utterly convinced it’s due to spending quite a lot of time virtually upside-down, in downward dog, or forward bends. In normal life, we never hang our heads lower than our waists – but Yoga students do it all the time, with the whoosh of nutrients and blood that goes with that. And yes, my skin is glowier, too and smoother. (Not to mention the fact that my stress levels – despite all that I have to juggle – are virtually non-existent.) Maybe this is also down to the hormone-reducing activity of exercise: Dr. Kunin adds, ‘Anything that controls the amount of male hormones in your body produces an impact on 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.’ So say after me: ‘Ommmmmm…’
But what’s the bottom-line skin prescription, when it comes to exercise? At least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise, at least three (and preferably five) times a week. You need to get your heart pumping: speed-walking, gym circuits, fast swimming, cycling – or preferably, a mixed regime of several types so that you’re getting a varied all-over workout. (Personally, I would steer clear of jogging when you’re of un certain age, because the constant pounding and bouncing can actually stretch collagen fibres in the face, as well as the chest.) And whichever exercise regime you choose, the key is also to drink lots of water: without plenty of fluids (purified water, preferably, or natural and organic fruit juices), then your skin won’t reap nearly as many benefits – or as swiftly as it could.
Whenever I’m asked what shade blusher would most flatter someone, I always tell them: ‘The same colour as your cheeks, after a brisk walk.’ But in fact, I should really be telling them to go on that walk, for real. It’ll quite possibly do far more for you – and far more enduringly – than a mere pot of powder or paint ever will…