Can exercise reverse skin ageing?

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Exercise is not only important for cardiovascular and cognitive health. There is growing evidence that exercise, even late in life, can reverse skin ageing.

A report in the New York Times(1) outlined how the changes we experience as we age - wrinkles, crow’s feet and sagging - are independent of exposure to the sun, and solely the result of the passage of time:

After about age 40, most of us begin to experience a thickening of our stratum corneum, the final, protective, outer layer of the epidermis, itself the top layer of your skin. The stratum corneum is the portion of the skin that you see and feel. Composed mostly of dead skin cells and some collagen, it gets drier, flakier and denser with age. At the same time, the layer of skin beneath the epidermis, the dermis, begins to thin. It loses cells and elasticity, giving the skin a more translucent and often saggier appearance.

Researchers from McMaster University in Ontario recruited male and female volunteers aged 20 to 84. While about half of the participants were active, performing at least three hours of moderate or vigorous physical activity every week, the others were sedentary, exercising for less than an hour per week.

The scientists biopsied skin samples from parts of the body typically unexposed to the sun. When compared strictly by age, the skin samples were pretty much as expected: older volunteers generally had thicker outer layers of skin and significantly thinner inner layers.

But those results shifted noticeably when the researchers further subdivided their samples by exercise habits.

They found that after age 40, the men and women who exercised frequently had markedly thinner, healthier stratum corneums and thicker dermis layers in their skin. Their skin was much closer in composition to that of the 20- and 30-year-olds than to that of others of their age, even if they were past age 65.

However, it was impossible to know whether exercise by itself had affected people’s skin, or whether other factors, such as diet, genes and lifestyle, may have influenced the differences in skin condition between the exercising and sedentary groups. So the researchers next obtained skin samples from another group of sedentary volunteers. The volunteers were aged at 65 or older and, at the study’s start, had normal skin for their age. They began a fairly straightforward endurance training program, working out twice a week by jogging or cycling at a moderately strenuous pace for 30 minutes. This continued for three months. At the end of that time, the researchers again biopsied the volunteers’ skin.

But now the samples looked quite different, with outer and inner layers that looked very similar to those of 20- to 40-year-olds.

According to the paper’s author, under a microscope, the volunteers’ skin:

“looked like that of a much younger person, and all that they had done differently was exercise.”

How exercise changes skin composition is not completely clear, and it’s important to note that there is no evidence that exercise reverses damage from the sun, but as the paper’s author says:

“it is astonishing to consider all of the intricate ways in which exercise changes our bodies”



1. retrieved 13/12/19.