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Eczema and Exercise

For many with eczema (atopic dermatitis), there are various difficulties to maintaining a regular exercise routine. Maybe you can relate to the struggle of wanting to stay fit but dreading the discomfort that comes from itchy and perhaps painful eczema as you get moving. However, there are numerous ways in which exercise benefits the body- and eczema- that you absolutely don’t want to miss out on. Let’s explore both the problems and benefits of exercise and eczema as well as tips for success!

The Benefits of Exercise

Don’t let eczema stop you from gaining amazing benefits of exercise like maintaining a healthy weight, strengthening muscles and bones, improving energy, reducing risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases, and the list could go on (1). You may have to be creative about how you exercise with eczema, but finding a way is vital as the benefits are so great.
There are benefits that specifically help eczema too!

  • Stress Reduction probably tops the list. Stress is a known trigger for eczema so finding ways to keep is at bay is vital. Exercise can help calm one’s mind from worries and cares. Physiologically, exercise causes the body to reduce stress hormones and release endorphins, chemicals that help with mood and relaxation (2).
  • Research shows that physical activity can help skin maintain its structure and prevent aging through reducing oxidative stress (34).
  • Did you know that exercise actually modifies the gut (intestinal) bacteria in beneficial ways (5)? This is important for those with eczema as eczema can be a sign of poor gut health. Research says that gut health has important implications in allergic diseases such as eczema (6).

The Problem of Exercise and Eczema: Heat and Sweat

When we think about exercise, especially moderate to high intensity exercise, we probably readily associate it with two things: heat and sweat. While these are good and healthy responses to exercise, they are also the most common ways in which exercise can aggravate eczema. It’s important to find a balance between reaping the benefits of these mechanisms and preventing unnecessary irritation.
Heat. The heat that is produced through exercise is a sign that your heart rate is up, your blood is flowing through your body faster, bringing more oxygen to cells, and raising your metabolism. The problem for eczema is that the extra blood flow, can cause an increase in itch and redness.
To find the balance, focus on the benefits that increased blood flow and oxygenation have for your body and be willing to feel the heat a bit. At the same time, those with eczema could benefit from limiting the rise in body temperature through choosing low-intensity exercises, taking a break to cool down mid-workout, or choosing to exercise indoor in a temperature controlled area.
Sweat. When body temperature rises, sweat is the natural cooling system. Sweat iscomposed almost entirely of water with a small amount of sodium, sugars, ammonia and urea (7). Many people with eczema find that sweat can really aggravate eczema. Some may even have a hypersensitivity to sweat (8), and release histamine as a reaction.However, sweat does have skin benefits too. It helps to cool the skin, balance skin pH, and even contains a substance known to fight bacteria on the skin (9).
To find the balance, be willing to break a sweat, knowing that it’s a natural response to exercise that holds big benefits in so many ways for your body (as discussed above) but at the same time, consider sticking to exercises that don’t cause you to sweat profusely. You can still gain amazing benefits from lower-intensity exercises. Keep a cool towel nearby to wipe away sweat during your workout and be sure to shower it away after the workout is done.

Tips for Exercise Success with Eczema

Hydration. Anytime we break a sweat and body temperature rises, water loss is happening. To keep your skin hydrated from the inside out, make sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your workout.
Clothing. Spandex, polyester and other synthetic fabrics that are popular for workout clothes can lock in sweat and bother eczema. Tight clothing as well can run against and irritate the skin. Ditch the spandex and opt for some lose and light cotton clothing instead.
Moisturizer. You may find that applying some light moisturizer before your workout protects your skin from sweat and irritation, and prevents flaring.
Setting and Time. If heat really aggravates your eczema, find a way to exercise indoors in a temperature controlled area. Good indoor ventilation and air flow can help you keep cool too. If you want to stick to the outdoors, scheduling your work out for early morning or evening will help you avoid the hottest part of the day.
Type of Exercise. Certain types of high-intensity exercise may be more problematic for eczema-sufferers as they greatly raise body temperature, cause sweating and perhaps chaffing of the skin. Consider trying a lower-intensity exercise like walking, Pilates, yoga, or Tai Chi. Several of these exercises incorporate deep breathing, which is great for oxygenating the body and reducing stress.
Showering. If may go without saying for other reasons beyond eczema, but take time to shower after your workout. A quick, warm (not hot) shower post-workout will cleanse the skin from sweat, preventing it from drying on and continuing to irritate the skin. If you shower at a gym where bathing products are provided, plan to instead bring your own products from home so you can stick with what you know will not irritate your skin.
Know Your Limit. Even with all the best practices to reduce eczema irritation from exercise, there may be times when it is best to take a break. If you are experiencing a bad flare, give your body time to rest and heal. You may find that you can handle a very gentle routine, such as stretching and deep breathing, but don’t push yourself. There will be other days to exercise.

What is your experience with exercise and eczema? What works for you?