How it helps & 9 tips to do it safely8 min read
From not having a scooby how to put together a gym workout, to struggling to use the plethora of home gym equipment out there, it’s hardly surprising that a lot of you find it hard to get started with exercise.
A new study of 2,000 women aged 18-45 in the UK by Venus, part of their Move Your Skin campaign, found that the appearance of your skin also plays a part, with more than a third of participants sharing that they won’t play sport because of it. Reasons for this included stretch marks and cellulite, and case in point, eczema.
1.3 million people in the UK suffer with the skin condition (its most common form is also known as atopic dermatitis), but it presents differently in everyone. Some of you may have ‘small patches of dry skin, while others may experience widespread inflamed skin all over the body,’ so says the NHS.
When it comes to treatment, the standard approach is a topical one – the NHS lists ‘emollients (moisturising treatments)’, and ‘topical corticosteroids’, while exercise is often avoided since many believe that sweating can exacerbate symptoms. This can sometimes be the case. One study put it down to the fact that eczema weakens the skin’s structure and ability to sweat, as sweat pores are blocked by dead skin cells, meaning sweat leaks into the skin and can heighten itching sensations. Another study found similar; sweat from exercise could irritate your skin, but the actual process of exercise alone (sans sweat) is unlikely to cause irritation.
It’s about how you exercise, and more and more research has proven that – if done correctly – it could help you. Some research has suggested that there may be a link between eczema and excess body weight, and one study showed this to be true, when participants who followed a weight loss programme including aerobic exercise and a calorie-restricted diet experienced a significant improvement in eczema symptoms.
Exercise could also help if you know stress is a big trigger for your flare-ups. One study found that participants who maintained regular physical activity had a 30% lower risk of stress, compared to the group who didn’t exercise. And further research found that stress impairs the function of your skin barrier (leaving it more susceptible to eczema flare-ups), while having eczema causes significant stress and can impair your quality of life. Exercise as an intervention was proven to significantly improve and reduce the likelihood of flare-ups.
In fact, an additional study showed that if your eczema is under control (i.e. you’re not mid-flare or particularly inflamed) before taking part in exercise, working out is unlikely to aggravate your condition.
There’s a lot to get your head around, and trying to manage symptoms is a minefield. Abby Tai, an eczema sufferer, eczema nutritionist, and founder of Eczema Conquerors and the Eczema Podcast, was born with the condition and has been coping with flare-ups since childhood. Her skin was once so sore that exercise was almost too painful to bare, but she’s learnt how to adapt her routine to work with her eczema, rather than against it.
For more information on eczema, including a confidential helpline and more advice on eczema and exercise, visit the National Eczema Society.
‘Back in high school, I was incredibly athletic – I was captain of cross country, on the basketball team, rowing team, and even in swimming,’ she tells us. ‘In my adulthood, I would exercise several times a week – which included strength training, cardio, and dancing. (I also come from a very fit family – my parents are in their 60s – they compete professionally in Latin dance competitions, and my brother competed in CrossFit – so they always pushed and inspired me to exercise.)
‘But my eczema often took almost all of the enjoyment I found in exercise away. I despised being on the basketball team – not only because I was in so much physical pain, but because I was also so afraid of what others thought of me.
‘This continued during adulthood. After I had my first son when I was 30, my skin flared up a lot, and I became very self-conscious whenever I went to gym classes. I tried to cover myself in long trousers, long sleeves, and hats. Whenever we had to do workouts that involved looking at the mirror, I’d look away so I couldn’t see myself.
‘I lost a lot of motivation to exercise because I felt so depressed, but my family always pushed me to move more in order to heal, so I kept it up. I also found that as much as I disliked going to the gym to exercise, I always left feeling good about myself, which also helped me keep it up.
‘But I’ve also had to adapt the way I approach exercise. In high school, I stopped all competitive activities apart from basketball (but I’d still try and hide my skin), and in adulthood, when I was 95% covered in rashes from head to toe, I was forced to take a break from all exercise.’
It was when Tai adopted a more gentle exercise approach that things changed. ‘I tried lighter forms of exercise that my body could cope with, like walking, cycling and rebounding on a mini trampoline, to get my lymphatic system moving. Cycling outdoors was best for taking my mind off the pain.
‘After a few months of this kind of exercise – and taking a probiotic, supplements to aid with digestion and lymphatic drainage, an L-glutamine supplement to aid with gut repair, and a supplement to balance my thyroid levels (all of which were issues that showed up when I had various tests) – my skin started to heal significantly, and I added in dancing and strength training once a week.’
Eczema can take a huge toll on your mental health, and Tai found that finding a form of fitness that could ‘boost your mood’ will also work wonders. ‘Dancing is my passion,’ she says. ‘It helps me release tension and feel good, even on a bad flare day.’
For her, there are now only two forms of exercise that she will avoid. ‘Swimming can sting my skin and the chlorine sometimes exacerbates my flare-ups. I also give anything too intense a miss, like HIIT – a lot of sweat can aggravate my skin and make it itchier.’
Her message is clear: if you’re also suffering with skin problems, eczema or otherwise, it’s about finding exercise that’s both skin-friendly and enjoyable. She says: ‘It’s very easy to let our negative emotions take over us when we are in a flare, but I would encourage anyone who feels this way to focus on the positive benefits that come out of exercise. Stop comparing yourself to others, and remember that there’s no use in doing intense exercise until your skin feels better – exercise is a stress, and stress can exacerbate symptoms.’
‘Think about how good you’ll feel mentally from exercise that you enjoy, but also how it’ll help boost your circulation and lymphatic system (which in turn will boost your immune system and could reduce flare-ups).
‘The benefits of exercise aren’t always apparent (and are at times “invisible”) – but don’t give up, because it’s one thing that can help your body, your mind, and your soul to flourish – especially during a flare.’
Tai’s story may or may not resonate with yours – as mentioned, everyone’s experience with eczema is unique, but Dr Rebecca Robinson, a sports and exercise medicine consultant, has some words of advice that you may all benefit from.
How can exercise help eczema?
Dr Robinson says: ‘Exercise is great for us all and long term skin conditions, like eczema, shouldn’t stop you from reaping the benefits that stretch from heart health to mental health, to joints but also to your skin. Indirectly, exercise can reduce stress, and this might help you avoid an eczema flare. Although the causes of eczema aren’t all understood and some are genetic and some allergic, eczema may have an inflammatory cause too and exercise can reduce the body’s inflammation.’
9 tips for exercising with eczema
- ‘Take regular rest breaks. Eczema can flare when your skin gets too hot, so this is more important on warm days. Find a gym that’s well ventilated.’
- ‘Wear activewear that lets your skin “breathe”. Go for cotton and breathable materials, and layer up so you can strip down layers and not overheat. Also, consider carrying a small towel to blot sweat off, because sweat can be salty and acidic, which could irritate your skin.’
- ‘If it’s practical, have an ice pack wrapped in a cotton towel on standby to cool your skin.’
- ‘Swimming can be a great form of exercise that keeps your skin cool. When swimming, choose a clean pool, with a neutral pH, and trial the water first (dip a leg or arm in), to check how you react to the chlorine. Apply moisturiser and, if you’re using it, your topical medication, both before and after.’
- ‘Clean and shower as soon as you can after exercise, to help remove any sweat and chemicals from your skin.’
- ‘If you’re having a flare, take it easier for a few days. Lighter exercise that doesn’t heat your skin too much will help your condition ease, and you won’t add to the stress on your system. Exercise is an additional stress on your body.’
- ‘Always wear sunscreen and make sure you’re using the best moisturisers and regime for your skin – consult a dermatologist if you have access.’
- ‘Enjoy your exercise, be competitive, but don’t let it add to your stress levels. If you find yourself beating yourself up for not running fast enough or not lifting heavy enough, for example, remember how insignificant these metrics are.’
- ‘Eating well is important for everyone. Nutrition alone won’t remove eczema issues, but reducing inflammatory surfaces could help, and adding Omega-3 rich foods (like nuts, oily fish and seeds) and collagen (such as fish, chicken and egg whites) can optimise skin health as an organ that needs fuel for renewal.’
Listen to Abby Tai speak more about her experience with eczema.
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