Cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen—and cardio? Yup, exercise is key to a healthier complexion. Here, the science-backed way to reap the benefits.

By Beth Janes
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Skin is your body’s largest organ. And just as exercise keeps other organs, like the heart, in fighting form, it also strengthens the skin’s ability to defend against aging and other damage.

In fact, the moment your heart starts beating faster, muscles pump out more of a protein (IL-15) that powers skin cells’ mitochondria to act younger—over time, that can make skin some 25 years younger at the microscopic level, according to a study at McMaster University in Ontario.

Meanwhile, exercise also helps your body control blood sugar and oxidative stress, reducing advanced glycation end products, which can age skin tissue, including important proteins like collagen. Even those actual beads of sweat do your skin good. Get the latest science below to optimize.

Your Workout Revs Repairs

Strength training causes micro-tears in muscles—the catalyst behind that next-day soreness—but that spurs muscle fibers to rebuild stronger. With regard to skin, studies show that exercise in general—whether resistance training or cardio—helps neutralize whole-body inflammation by releasing anti-inflammatory proteins while also reducing stress hormones.

“Inflammation is a major source of skin aging, so anything that combats it protects collagen and helps skin age better,” says Shape Brain Trust member Elizabeth K. Hale, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City.

Inflammation and stress are also known to trigger and exacerbate acne and eczema and to compromise the skin’s barrier, making it dry and sensitive. And if you get a cut or a rash, being active regulates skin’s inflammatory response, so it doesn’t get stuck in that initial red, inflamed phase. A study from Ohio State University, for example, reports that skin wounds healed an average of nine days faster in those who exercised regularly compared with those who weren’t active.

Cardio Speeds Nutrients to Your Skin

Exercise improves blood flow all over, including skin. (Not to mention, it working out has a ton of mental health benefits as well.)

“That increase in circulation dilates blood vessels, which brings more nutrients and oxygen to support skin cells,” says Dr. Hale. “You can generally tell how healthy someone is by looking at their skin, and a lot of that bright complexion everyone wants is a product of good blood flow.”

But along with bringing nutrients, good circulation helps carry away toxic substances, free radicals, and cell by-products, says Dr. Hale. Do whatever cardio you like, but go hard enough so that your heart rate picks up. (See: The 3 Types of Cardio You Should Be Doing)

The Sweat Factor

Sweating is skin smart too. “When you sweat, pores open and release impurities,” says Dr. Hale. Sweat also plays a role in your immune system: It contains an antimicrobial peptide called dermcidin that acts as the first defense against harmful bacteria (like E. coli and Staphylococcus) that cling to the skin’s surface, waiting for a way in.

Still, right after your workout, cleanse, says Dr. Hale: “Sweat itself doesn’t cause acne, but if you don’t wash right away or if you hang around in tight, sweaty clothes, natural bacteria and yeast on skin can start fermenting, and you may clog or irritate pores, which can cause small, red bumps.” Exercising outside? Avoid sun damage by using a sweat-resistant sunscreen. Try Coppertone Sport Clear SPF 50  buy it, $11, amazon.com) or any of these other sweat-proof sunscreens perfect for working out.

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