Skin changes as the years advance, resulting in wrinkles, crow’s feet and sagging. These changes are independent of any skin damage from the sun - which can make things worse. They are solely the result of the passage of time.
It occurs because of changes within our layers of skin. After about age 40, most of us begin to experience a thickening of the final, protective, outer layer of the skin, while the layer beneath it begins to thin and lose elasticity.
But researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada began to wonder if such alterations were inevitable.
The scientists gathered 29 local male and female volunteers ages 20 to 84. About half of the participants were active, performing at least three hours of moderate or vigorous physical activity every week, while the others were resolutely sedentary, exercising for less than an hour per week. Then the researchers asked each volunteer to uncover a buttock.
“We wanted to examine skin that had not been frequently exposed to the sun,” said Dr Mark Tarnopolsky, a Professor of Paediatrics and Exercise Science at McMaster.
The scientists took a biopsy of skin samples from each volunteer. When compared strictly by age, the skin samples overall aligned with what would be 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 better looking and healthier 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.
But as the researchers realised, other factors, including diet, genes and lifestyles, might have influenced the differences in skin condition between the exercising and sedentary groups. It was impossible to know whether exercise by itself had affected people’s skin or been incidental to lucky genetics and healthy lives.
So the researchers next set a group of sedentary volunteers to exercising, after first obtaining skin samples.
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, equivalent to at least 65% of their maximum aerobic capacity for 30 minutes. This continued for three months.
But at the end of the trial, the skin samples looked quite different, looking very similar to those of 20- to 40-year-olds.
“I don’t want to over-hype the results, but, really, it was pretty remarkable to see,” said Dr Tarnopolsky. He says that the skin of the volunteers looked like a much younger person and that all they had done was begun an exercise program.
Dr Tarnopolsky said there was no evidence that exercise reverses wrinkling and other damage from the sun, some of which many of us accumulate during outdoor exercise.