The challenge of enjoying exercise without exacerbating your eczema can be a delicate balancing act.
If pinpointing potential triggers is key to managing eczema, so too is not letting the condition restrict the things we all enjoy doing. On the surface, the riddle with exercise is particularly daunting: how do you avoid overheating, irritation, and a flare-up when you’re generally trying to work up a sweat?
The regulation of temperature is really important for those with eczema, particularly when taking part in any form of exercise. Though our skin can react either favorably or adversely to heat or cold, being subjected to extremes and quick changes can bring about the dreaded itch.
Taking part in exercise—whether it’s a walk on a Saturday morning, a dance class, or an evening bicycle ride home from work—gives the body a workout, and we all sweat to moderate our temperature. As sweat evaporates, it cools the surface of the skin.
Perspiration is largely made up of water together with urea, lactate, and minerals such as sodium. The relevance to those with eczema is two-fold: exercise dries out the skin through the loss of fluids, and the sodium in sweat can dehydrate the skin as well as sting and irritate it.
Personal experience shows that exercise frequently triggers frenzied scratching as the skin surface temperature soars. Given the likelihood of a possible reaction, being prepared can counteract many problems early.
No one needs to glug bottles of water before setting off, but drinking fluids regularly will replace the water lost when sweating. Anyone with eczema has inherently dry skin and is susceptible to weaker skin barrier function, and I have found, unsurprisingly, that drinking water (especially around exercise) is to be recommended.
The need to choose the right clothing for exercise is obvious and essential to minimize irritation as the body heats up. There are all manner of synthetic moisture “wicking” clothing options available that draw sweat into the garments, but these clothes weren’t designed for those with eczema in mind and they can feel rough and less comfortable to wear against sensitive skin. Loose-fitting 100 percent cotton T-shirts might buck the trend for tighter contour-hugging sports clothing, but in general, cotton is likely to be more comfortable than synthetics like polyester, and Spandex around the waistline, neckline or cuffs is best avoided. Ultimately, of course, it comes down to personal choice. Look for light, breathable fabrics that don’t rub or scratch the skin during exercise.
Taking regular breaks during exercise isn’t cheating; it’s an opportunity to rest, rehydrate and cool down if you’re sensing the start of a flare with your eczema. Being realistic around the state of your eczema when you want to exercise means choosing a level of intensity to match.
Cold compression wraps (using either re-freezable ice or gel) are most often used to treat soft-tissue swelling or injuries but make excellent aids for cooling the skin and calming the itch in eczema. There are also a variety of cooling towels available today. Don’t wait until the escalation of a flare to use them; build their use into a rest period or a water break.
Given the potential to overheat, bear in mind both surroundings and other ways to counteract a rise in temperature. Keep a towel nearby to wipe off sweat during exercise, and ensure that indoor facilities are well ventilated.
In much the same way that taking on water counteracts water lost while exercising, applying emollients will protect your skin in advance of and following exercise. A heavier ointment might feel hot and counterproductive and actually trap in sweat, so a cream or lighter application of ointment an hour before exercise allows time for it to have absorbed fully.
There is nothing quite as satisfying as a hot bath or shower after exercise to relax the muscles—except, of course, if you have eczema because your skin will be vulnerable and susceptible to triggers like sudden changes in temperature. Washing off sweat rather than letting it dry on the skin is a good idea, but resist the temptation to sizzle after a workout. Something I find effective is to start with a warm shower and gradually make it cooler over minutes and in stages.
Gyms, health clubs, and fitness centers might supply their shower gels and products but use your own emollients instead; it’s not worth risking a reaction for the sake of convenience. You can always decant your emollients into a travel-size container or get smaller quantities from your physician.
In any discussion on the positives and pitfalls surrounding eczema and exercise, it’s important to emphasize the benefits that exercise can have—from controlling weight to maintaining fitness, reducing stress, and releasing endorphins, which make you feel good about yourself.
The message is clear: don’t stop exercising because of eczema, but you might have to adapt what you do or compromise on the frequency and intensity.
There are clear links between eczema and stress. Exercise can be used as a tool to release stress and improve mood, which in turn benefits the skin.
Given that exercise can take any form that ultimately maintains or improves our health, there is no ideal type for people with eczema, just as there is no single treatment.
If your preferred choice of exercise proves problematic for your skin, then why not see it as an opportunity to try something new?
Walking, gardening, and swimming are examples that needn’t be any less demanding, if that’s the aim, but that don’t necessarily lead to issues around sweating and over- heating in the way that bicycling or running might.
Also, thinking of exercise purely in physical or perhaps sporting terms is to discount the benefits of alternatives like tai chi, Pilates, or yoga, which improve mobility, muscle strength and reduce stress. If you find your usual go-to exercises do aggravate your eczema, think outside the box.
Millions of Americans swim each year. Given its popularity, particularly as an attractive exercise option to those with eczema, let’s look at some practical considerations to take the worry out of swimming for people with eczema.
Chlorine is the most common chemical used as a disinfectant to clean swimming pools, while bromine-based agents, UV-radiation and ozone gas are all rarer treatments. Chlorine can be a potential irritant for those with eczema, replacing the concern over sweating from other exercises. But for some eczema patients, swimming in a chlorinated pool has the same positive effect as taking a bleach bath. As is often the case with eczema, what works for one person may be a trigger or irritant for another.
An alternative to swimming indoors in heated pools is to head outdoors to swim in the ocean, rivers, or lakes. Admittedly, in the depths of winter, this might have less appeal, but there’s no denying the practicality for people who know that the heat of exercise triggers their eczema. For some people with eczema, the sea’s saltwater can be soothing, but for others, it can be painful. The same is true for other bodies of water. It’s important to rinse and moisturize before and after swimming in any natural body of water.
It’s also important to swim within your limits, based on your experience in open water, your strength as a swimmer, your resilience in cold water, and your knowledge about the swim location. The American Red Cross has a good section on Swim Safety on their website: redcross.org/prepare/disaster/water-safety/swim-safety. One of the guidelines is to always swim with a buddy.
Exercise can sometimes prove a real stumbling block for those of all ages who have eczema, and it can be frustrating to want to get involved in something that could risk upsetting your skin.
It might mean adapting how you do a certain sport or activity or taking up something new—which is hopefully no less enjoyable—but there’s no reason why anyone has to limit or stop their exercise because of their eczema.
Original article written by John Fuller for the United Kingdom’s National Eczema Society magazine Exchange. Edited for the U.S. audience and republished with permission.
The National Eczema Association extends a special thank you to John Fuller, contributing writer, and Margaret Cox, Chief Executive, National Eczema Society