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That Healthy Glow: Diet, Exercise, and Your Skin

by Russ Klettke

Health and beauty are complicated. The relative health of your skin—an unlined, unblemished glow being the ideal, only rarely achieved without Photoshop airbrushing—can be influenced by a smartly engineered diet and workout plan. But oh, there are so many ways you can get it wrong. For men who aspire to a competitive bodybuilder's physique, it can be very difficult to balance body beauty and optimal skin attractiveness over an extended period of time. Simply put, body fat can make the face look better, but it won't help your six-pack. Is there anything you can do to stay buff in the body and pretty in the face? Indeed there is. The key is to avoid the extremes. Balanced exercise and nutrition can work together to optimize the health and appearance of both your body and your skin.

Good Skin Gone Wrong
Skin is a three-layer organ—that's right, your skin is the body's largest organ—and its appearance is a function of bones, muscles, fat, and overall healthfulness. The outermost layer, the epidermis, is constantly in a state of renewal, entirely replacing itself, cell by cell, about once every month. Exfoliation moves the dead cells out and ushers in the new—part of the glow you get from a good facial scrub. But here's the real rub: The cell membranes in the epidermis are made up of lipids (fats) and protein, while water helps fill out the cells. Cut back on any of those and you get sagging, grey, or wrinkled skin.

In short, nutrition matters. As does exercise. Good circulation, the kind where your heart and respiration rates increase—certainly from cardiovascular exercise, but smart strength training can do that, too—naturally flushes the skin with blood-borne nutrients. Also, perspiration and wiping the face with a clean towel help slough off those dead epidermal skin cells. Gross, but effective.

All good—until you overdo it. The super-healthy-but-weathered triathlete comes to mind, as does as the bodybuilder with acne or facial folds and creases. We spoke with several dermatologists and plastic surgeons, and reviewed other existing literature on the topic of male skin health, to help you sort through the do's, dont's and what-to-expects of your skin.

Your Skin Is What You Eat
Skin aging is a result of abuse over time. Key culprits are sun, smoke (environmental and tobacco), emotional stress, alcohol consumption, dehydration, and inadequate sleep, each of which release inflammatory, age-inducing free radicals in the skin cells. "Whenever you get color from the sun, you are permanently aging the skin," says Matthew Schulman, M.D., a professor of plastic surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine who has a practice on Manhattan's Upper East Side. If you can adjust to the idea of no suntan, he advises you use sunscreens with both UVA and UVB protection.

Yet, a complete absence of sun exposure can cause other problems. A 2008 study conducted by the University of California/San Diego correlates sunshine-generated Vitamin D in latitudes closer to the Equator with lower rates of cancer (Vitamin D is an antioxidant). Dr. Schulman says 15 minutes per day of sun on the face and hands is sufficient to get adequate Vitamin D.

Like your body, your skin is abused by free radicals consumed in your food. Fight back by consuming anti-inflammatory foods, those high in antioxidants. Dark berries (blueberries, blackberries, plums, cranberries, and strawberries) are highly recommended, as are Omega-3 fatty acids, richly found in cold-water fish (salmon, herring, anchovies, sardines), seeds (flax, pumpkin, sunflower), certain nuts (walnuts, macadamia, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts), legumes (peanuts, kidney, black, and soy beans), and avocados (a fruit, by the way). Even coffee has antioxidants of some value, but green tea is more potent. Nutritionist Liz Lipski, PhD, author of Digestive Wellness, emphasizes the importance of Vitamin A, found in dark green and yellow-orange vegetables and milk products (low-fat is OK). Further, the less processed oils—cold-pressed and extra virgin olive oil—are the best lipids for your skin cell membranes.

Where can you go most wrong? Simple (processed) carbohydrates have been shown to contribute to acne, and Dr. Nicholas Perricone, the renowned skin expert and author of The Perricone Prescription, connects simple sugars to a phenomenon called glycation. This, he says, is when spikes in blood sugar attach to collagen, in the skin's second layer, causing stiffness and sagging. Not all his colleagues in dermatology agree with him, but it's another reason to stick with more complex carbohydrates and avoiding sugary confections.

That said, all of those skin-healthy oils, nuts, and fatty fish tend to be high in calories. Read labels to know the calories you are consuming relative to other parts of your diet and your activity level. Rule of thumb: Most abs are built in the kitchen.

Pump the Skin
It would be a shame to put all those nutrients in your body if you didn't circulate them with exercise. But there are ways exercise can work against skin beauty:

  1. Dirty accessorizing: Wear a hat or headband or rub your face with a dirty towel and you risk bacterial skin blemishes. So, if you've not given up your 1985 headband yet, please, please do so at once.
  2. Testosterone: A simple fact: Too much testosterone causes acne. That said, unless you're a teenager or are abusing steroids, you don't need to worry to much about this; there is no research that shows within-reason testosterone levels, such as testosterone stimulated by an all-natural exercise and diet, can have this effect.
  3. Weight loss: Dr. John Di Saia, a plastic surgeon practicing in Orange County, Calif., told us that the skin of men who lose significant weight shrinks back better when they're younger, and less so as they age. Lesson: Lose excess weight when you're younger—or see a plastic surgeon if the folds bother you on visits to Palm Springs.
  4. Poker-faced lifting: When attacking the weights with vigor, a guy can easily form an "exertion expression," ultimately leading to creases in the skin. So says Dr. Susan Van Dyke, a Paradise Valley, Ariz.-based dermatologist. She recommends Botox to combat those creases, but if you're not into injecting toxins into your face, you might also try to limit the expression itself as you exercise.
  5. Be a man: By virtue of simply having that Y chromosome, male skin is protected from sun by thick whiskers, or exfoliated daily when we shave, says Dr. Van Dyke. She gives us some bad and good news: "Male skin is also more likely to age with obvious pre-cancers such as actinic keratoses, whereas female skin may show more wrinkles." So plan on frequent skin checks by a dermatologist, even as you enjoy the benefits of smooth skin in old age.
Some skin factors are beyond our control. But an informed balance of the right foods and exercise can give you your best glow possible.

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a Chicago-based business writer, fitness trainer, and author of A Guy's Gotta Eat, the regular guy's guide to eating smart with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD (Marlowe/Da Capo Press, 2004).