Want Youthful Skin? Start Strength Training.

New research out of Japan suggests going to the gym thickens both muscles and skin

A muscular man lifting a barbell over his head. Here's how strength training can actually give you youthful skin.
Don't forsake your typical skincare routine, but exercise also contributes to epidermal rejuvenation.
Jose Carlos Cerdeno Martinez/Getty Images

As much as men have been roasted in recent years for washing their faces with dish soap and moisturizing like orangutans, a lot of guys have finally started sticking to some sort of skincare regimen. As it turns out, an underrated, yet essential part of those routines is something many of them have been doing since their teenage years: lifting weights. 

According to recent research conducted in Japan, getting swole can actually reduce the signs of aging, more so than aerobic exercise. Although the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, was conducted on women, there is reason to believe the findings apply to men as well. “We believe that there are the same effects in men because [the] skin rejuvenation mechanism is the same,” said Satoshi Fujita, lead author of the study and an exercise scientist at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University.

Apparently, going to the gym won’t just give you thicker muscles — it could grant you a thick skin, too.

The Years Take Their Toll

To understand how lifting weights can improve the skin, it’s important to understand how aging and the environment take their toll. Skin aging is caused by the wearing down of what’s known as the extracellular matrix (ECM) of the dermis. Such deterioration can be a result of environmental factors like sun exposure and pollution, but also age-related hormonal changes, increased inflammation and decreased dermal thickness. If you’ve ever noticed how your grandparents’ skin seems thinner — somehow more delicate — well, this is why. 

Your Skin on Exercise

Working out is beneficial for the body and brain. One previous study found that aerobic exercise stimulated the release of interleukin 15 (IL-15), a protein that helps regulate skin aging. Beyond that, little is known about the direct relationship between physical activity and skin health.

To learn more, Fujita and his team divided 56 sedentary women into two groups. One group of women exercised for 30 minutes on a bike twice a week for 16 weeks, and half of them worked out with weights twice a week for 16 weeks. Participants’ skin was examined at the start and end of the 16-weeks by researchers who were trained in analyzing skin properties like elasticity, tone and dermal thickness. 

First and foremost, data revealed that any exercise was good for the skin. Both types of exercises increased skin elasticity, boosted collagen-producing genes and increased the ECM of the dermis, which naturally deteriorates from aging and sun exposure. The biggest difference was that participants who lifted weights actually strengthened their skin by thickening their dermal layer. A thicker dermal layer can decrease sagging and pigment spots, resulting in younger-looking skin. 

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Fujita suspected that the biggest reason that lifting weights had anti-aging effects on the skin was because resistance training reduced inflammation. “Aerobic exercise did not show this reduction of inflammatory factors,” he noted. And while it is difficult to compare the effect of exercise and expensive cosmetic items, Fujita said, “We believe that the combination of exercise as ‘inner-care’ and a skincare routine as ‘outer-care’ may even be the better approach.”

Much like caking on an expensive serum or moisturizer, when it comes to lifting, there remains the danger of too much of a good thing. “Over-training may increase inflammatory factors, which [would] then have reverse effects on the skin,” Fujita warned. 

Don’t Forsake Traditional Skincare

It’s worth noting that maintaining a basic external skincare routine is still important. For that, most experts recommend cleansing the face in the morning, then applying a moisturizer and sunscreen. In the context of physical activity, Fujita echoed this sentiment: “If you do exercise outside, don’t forget to wear sunscreen.” Then at night, clean the face again, before applying a retinol (over-the-counter) or retinoid (prescription-grade), along with more moisturizer. 

All that being said, Fujita’s research is the first to suggest that an internal skincare routine can be equally crucial for maintaining healthy skin with age. This is great news for guys who prefer a trip to the gym over a trip to the dermatologist (but go see a dermatologist, too).

A Simple Workout to Get Started

In case you’re not sure where to start in the weight-lifting department, the participants in Fujita’s study did this workout twice a week:

  • 3 sets of 10 leg curls
  • 3 sets of 10 leg extensions
  • 3 sets of 10 arm curls
  • 3 sets of 10 rows
  • 3 sets of 10 shoulder presses
  • 3 sets of 10 chest presses 
  • Plus a 5-rep warmup set of each exercise at half the weight

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