Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 6: Exercise & Acne
Welcome to Part 6 of the Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin series – all about exercise and acne! I hope you’ve been finding this series helpful.
If you want to go back and check out the other parts in the clear skin/acne series (where we cover acne and nutrition, the root causes of acne, and more), you can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.
In this post, we’ll talk about exercise and acne. Let’s consider the following questions:
- Does exercise matter for acne?
- Will exercise make acne worse? Or better?
- Does the type of exercise matter?
- Won’t sweating make me break out?
- What role does movement play in achieving clear skin?
Does Exercise Matter for Acne?
Yes! It really does. There are lots of blog posts out there about the benefits of exercise for general health, so I won’t delve into the science and studies here. We know that exercise is great for healthy aging, a sharp mind, mental health and wellness including direct benefits for anxiety and depression, better sleep, healthy weight, and more vibrant, energetic lives.
What about exercise and acne? Well, the benefits of exercise ALSO include reducing inflammation, supporting balanced blood sugar, and reducing stress. As you’ll recall, inflammation, blood sugar imbalance, and stress are all underlying root causes of acne. What’s more, I listened to a webinar recently that discussed how exercise has also been linked positively to gut health, and if you’ve read any of the other posts in this series, you know gut health is really important to acne.
So right away we know that exercise can help manage and positively impact the underlying root causes of acne.
Will Exercise Make Acne Worse? Or Better?
There is certainly a personal element to this (because every body is different), but in general, exercise should make acne better. As noted above, exercise has immense benefits for general health and that includes specific benefits for acne.
That said, different types of exercise produce different outcomes in the body. Some of those outcomes might not be AS helpful if you are someone who is prone to acne.
So, perhaps instead of thinking about exercise making acne better or worse, we should ask…
Does The TYPE of Exercise Matter?
To make this as simple as possible, I’d ask you to consider three types of exercise: heavy weight-lifting, intense cardio, and basic movement (walking, yoga, a basic fitness class, etc). I know these are really general categories, but bear with me.
As a general rule, exercise is able to stimulate the endocrine (i.e. hormone) system, in various ways. This can include stimulating the sex hormones and it can include stimulating the stress hormones.
Why does that matter? Well, the root causes of acne include hormone imbalances and stress.
How does this relate to the three types of exercise I mentioned above?
- Heavy weight-lifting and body building might stimulate “circulating androgens.” Recall that androgen hormones are the precursors to testosterone, which in turn can boost sebum production, which contributes to acne. I’d guess that this is an individual response. And, to be honest, studies haven’t been conclusive on the impacts of intense exercise on androgen hormones. That said, women have anecdotally noticed a link between body-building type fitness and cystic/hormonal acne. When it comes to acne, I believe there is value in our personal experiences. If you feel like you notice a link between your (heavy, intense) weight-lifting workouts and acne, there might be something to that.
- Intense cardio can trigger the stress hormone response in the body, including the release of cortisol. Poor cortisol isn’t the devil, and it’s a natural part of exercise (it’s what helps your body respond to the physical demands of activity), but it’s about balance (or what I’ve seen called an ‘intensity threshold’). Very intense or high endurance cardio can correspond to a greater release of cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, and as such it can contribute to the negative impacts stress has on acne. Higher demands for cortisol can also contribute to hormonal imbalance, which is a root cause of acne.
- Moderate level activities like walking and yoga have proven stress-relieving benefits. Both walking and yoga have been shown to reduce/balance cortisol (check out some neat studies here and here). In lowering cortisol, walking and yoga also contribute to hormonal balance, and that’s a good thing for acne.
The takeaway from this is that YOUR experience with YOUR acne matters. If you’ve noticed a link between the type of exercise you’re doing and your acne, pay attention to that and respect that observation.
To be clear, I’m not saying DON’T do those activities, and I’m not saying that these activities will cause acne in any person who does them.
I just want you to have all of the possible information so that you can best learn to understand your own acne. If you think your very intense physical activity is exacerbating your acne, consider taking a break to see if that makes a difference.
In the meantime, you can incorporate more stress-relieving physical activity, like brisk walking, yoga, fascia rolling, rebounding, less intense weight classes, and so on.
BUT WON’T SWEATING MAKE ME BREAK OUT?
Worry about breaking out after sweating was always a concern for me. I used to think I could FEEL my skin congesting as I was working out (that’s what acne can do to your mind).
But, sweating is natural and healthy process for your body and your skin. To help reduce breakouts, try to work-out without any make-up (or as close to no makeup as you feel comfortable) and on really sweaty days, consider washing your face again with your favourite face wash as soon as you can. Follow that up with a clay mask (for those really hot humid days) or a honey mask (perfect for any season).
My sister struggles sometimes with acne on her back, so after working out or sweating of any kind she always sponges off and changes into a fresh shirt. Yes, it’s a pain. But hopefully if you can combine some of these tips with healthy eating for acne, you’ll be on your way to worrying a bit less about the sweat factor.
If you have any other tips, feel free to add them in the comments.
And lastly, don’t forget to ask….
What Role Does MOVEMENT Play in Achieving Clear Skin?
We’ve talked about exercise and acne, but that’s not all there is to it. I think of exercise as part of a family, and that whole family is called MOVEMENT. There are lots of ways movement can be part of your life, but let’s talk about four that are important for achieving clear skin:
As discussed above, exercise is the movement of your body, and helps with all levels of mental, emotional, and physical wellness (for acne and general health)
This is all about MOVING WASTE out of the body. Clear skin requires good, regular bowel movements. Constipation is no friend to acne (constipation can contribute to hormonal imbalance like estrogen dominance as well as poor detoxification). So remember to:
- drink lots of water
- move your body regularly (helps the ol’ bowels get things going), and
- focus on good sources of fibre every day: chia seeds, ground flax, leafy greens, lots of veggies, apples, prunes, nuts and seeds, and beans/lentils (if your body tolerates them).
Healthy skin needs nutrients and oxygen (think of this as MOVING GOOD THINGS to our cells). Exercise is one way we get nutrients and oxygen delivered to our skin cells. A few others might be:
- Good, deep breathing. This helps reduce stress and move oxygen through the body.
- Massage (you don’t have to tell me twice!)
- Dry brushing (supporting the lymphatic system)
- Activities like stretching, fascia rolling, or yoga (including inversions)
- Taking supplements to reduce inflammation and support healthy blood flow, like omega 3 fatty acids or krill oil, turmeric, or proteolytic enzymes (the kind you take away from food, like bromelain or papain)
GENERAL LIFE FLOW
Here we’re talking about MOVEMENT OF THE MIND AND SPIRIT. When we stop learning and growing, we become stagnant. Stagnation doesn’t serve the body and doesn’t serve you (think of stagnation as the opposite of circulation – we need to keep things moving at ALL levels).
A part of the search to resolving acne includes adding more pleasure and joy to life. These types of “positive vibration” activities will help you on all levels of health, including your journey to clear skin. I’m thinking of:
- mental stimulation (puzzles, learning, podcasts, conversations)
- stepping outside your comfort zone
- trying new things (movies, books, foods, activities)
- getting absorbed in an activity you love
- being lost in nature for an afteroon
- spending time doing pleasurable activities
- and so on
To Sum It Up:
Exercise is a huge component of good health and that means exercise and acne are also linked. When we move our bodies regularly in ways we enjoy, we can address several of the root causes of acne in one go: inflammation, blood sugar, gut health, and stress. Activities like walking and yoga have proven benefits for lowering the stress hormone cortisol and for supporting balanced hormones, all important for clear skin.
Beyond exercise and acne, this post also discusses how the body’s need for movement applies at every level: mind, body, and spirit. Our lives depend on movement, flow, breath, healthy elimination, and circulation. Achieving clear, healthy skin means addressing and incorporating habits that support as many of these different types of movement as possible.
That means exercise, but also drinking water, focussing on fibre, supporting the lymphatic system (massage, dry brushing), attending to healthy circulation (supplements, yoga, fascia release), and also supporting the mind’s need for stimulation, pleasure, learning, and growth.