Can Exercise Reverse Skin Aging?

You use special soaps, creams, and lotions, but do you give your skin a beauty treatment it really needs—a good, sweaty work out? Exercise is not only good for your health and appearance, it might even turn back the clock on aging skin, researchers say.

In a recent study, exercise improved the appearance of subjects’ skin and reversed some of the cellular damage that’s common to aging, according to researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, who presented their study at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine conference. The study was small, based on only 29 men and women ages 20 to 84, but the results were remarkable.

What the Study Found

Initially, researchers divided subjects into two groups—those who were already active and exercised three or more hours per week at a moderate or vigorous pace, and those who were inactive and exercised less than an hour per week. Then the investigators performed skin biopsies (removed a small portion of skin) from participants’ buttocks, and looked at it under a microscope. (Skin from the buttocks is unlikely to be exposed to and damaged by the sun, a primary cause of skin aging.)

These skin samples showed expected indicators of aging: in older subjects, the stratum corneum, the visible surface of the epidermis (the top layer of skin), was thicker. Meanwhile, the dermis, which lies beneath the epidermis and keeps the skin plump and firm, was thinner. But when they further divided their subjects based on their exercise habits, they found that after age 40, the skin of subjects who exercised regularly had skin that more closely resembled that of the 20- and 30-year-olds—that is, older exercisers had thinner surface skin and thicker layers of dermis.

Then, in order to be sure that the difference in skin wasn’t attributable to diet, genetics, or lifestyle factors, they had a group of sedentary, over-65 subjects start an exercise program. These subjects cycled or jogged at 65% aerobic capacity for 30 minutes a couple times per week for three months. When their skin was re-biopsied at the end of this training period, researchers found that based on the thickness of skin layers, their skin was now closer to that of the 20 to 40-year-olds.

Researchers aren’t sure why exercise creates such a big change in skin’s cell structure and thickness. But they did find that the subjects who exercised had a marked increase in a substance called myokines, which are created by working (exercising) muscle. Myokines enter the bloodstream and jump-start cellular changes even in cells far from the muscles that created them. Exercise didn’t seem to make a difference in skin damage caused by the sun, however.

"We think that exercise results in many systemic factors that enhance skin health," explains Mark Tarnopolsky, MD, PhD, Professor at McMaster University in the Departments of Pediatrics and Medicine, and the study’s lead researcher. These factors include "One, the release of factors (likely proteins) from muscle and other tissues that promote skin health; two, the heat generated by exercise leads to sweating and increased blood flow to the skin; and possibly, three: In areas that would be affected, like the arms, the mechanical abrasion of the clothes while running may stimulate the skin."

Conduct Your Own Anti-Aging Experiment

More research needs to be conducted before scientists find a direct link between exercise and skin health. But why not conduct a little research on yourself? Take a picture of your skin before and after you start a healthy exercise program and see if working out improves your skin’s appearance. Like the McMaster University researchers, we think you’ll be amazed by the results!

This article was reviewed by: Dr. Liesa Harte, MD. Founder, Elite Care.


"Research Says Regular Exercise May Slow Aging Process in Humans." American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. April 6, 2014. 

Reynolds, Gretchen. "Younger Skin Through Exercise." The New York Times. April 16, 2014.