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Dr. Jennifer Pearlman

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

If you need a nudge toward the gym or your running shoes, science has delivered yet another reason – your skin.

According to new research, exercise may prove to be the best kept anti-aging secret for youthful skin. We have long appreciated the benefits of regular exercise on our heart, brain, bone and muscle, but now it appears that exercise may also keep your skin youthful as well.

Facial aging and skin deterioration are the undeniable rites of passage with aging. With time, the skin ages with the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, loss of elasticity and textural changes.

Despite the certainty of these changes, scientists are still unsettled on the causes. Over the past decade there has been a shift in our understanding of the causes of facial aging. What we once thought was a process of stretching and sagging, we now know has much more to do with deflation and deterioration.

Using powerful microscopes to magnify skin and wrinkles and better understand the cellular changes underpinning aging, detailed scientific surveys have shown that all layers from the deep subcutaneous tissues (bone, fat, muscle) to the soft tissue matrix of the dermis and epidermis (including collagen and elastin fibres) deflate and deteriorate as we age.

The loss of structural support leads to deflation and the appearance of deep folds and those infamous jowls. While these living skin layers thin dramatically, the outermost layer, the stratum corneum, comprised of dead cells, grows thicker. As a result, aging skin becomes more coarse, dehydrated and lax.

Researchers from McMaster University have found that in mice models, regular exercise has been shown to stave off and reverse the signs of early aging. As compared to sedentary mice, those given access to running wheels maintained healthier brains, hearts, muscles, reproductive organs and fur over a longer period of time.

The active mice's fur did not grey and they did not develop furrows and wrinkles. In mice, exercise was having a beneficial impact on preventing and reversing common signs of aging.

Not all mouse models bear true in humans. The McMaster anti-aging exercise study recalls another mouse model that showed age reversal with rejuvenative effects on tissue and reproductive potential. Repeated mice studies showed that "caloric restriction" in aging female mice stopped reproductive aging, diminished the appearance of fat depots, wrinkles, greying of the fur, and prevented diabetes, heart disease and bone loss. Caloric restriction, though, did not prove a successful anti-aging strategy in human subjects.

The exercise hypothesis, though, may prove to be different.

The McMaster researchers followed up their mice studies with a small human trial evaluating 29 subjects aged 20 to 84 years to compare those who were active – performing at least three hours of physical activity weekly – to those who were sedentary. Measurements of the skin in an unexposed area, the buttock, were compared across groups.

While skin changes occurred with aging, the active subjects were found to have thinner stratum corneums and thicker dermis layers with a more youthful skin composition regardless of age. The research group also showed that starting a new exercise program later in life results in rejuvenative changes to the skin as seen in those subjects who consistently partook in regular aerobic exercise.

The researchers presented their findings at a recent annual meeting of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine in New Orleans.

An emerging understanding of our mitochondrial genome (mtDNA) and its likely causal role in aging provides a direct link between how exercise keeps us young. Endurance exercise has been shown to induce mtDNA biogenesis and prevent its depletion and mutation. These protective exercises induced mitochondrial changes that confer protection from accelerated aging and mortality.

But working muscle provides another important link between exercise and delayed aging. Working skeletal muscle produces a group of growth factors called myokines. Myokines are released from muscle into the bloodstream to cause changes in distant tissue such as the skin. In this 2011 study, the McMaster researchers measured levels of one myokine, called IL-15, in their exercising subjects and found levels to be about 50 per cent higher in individuals who exercised regularly as compared to those that do not.

The local action of myokines in the skin opens the door for a new generation of bioactive medical-grade skin care treatments. The paradigm change in our understanding of facial aging has revealed that our old solutions such as a face lift designed to lift and pull skin taut were based on the wrong science.

New options for facial rejuvenation are intended to restore volume while also tightening and retexturing the skin through the use of less invasive interventions such as injectible dermal fillers to replace volume, radiofrequency devices to restore elasticity, and skin care or light-based technologies to improve the colour and texture of the skin.

It may soon be that we offer exercise as an additional tool to maintain both a youthful appearance and architecture of the skin. So get fit– your skin may thank you!

Dr. Jennifer Pearlman is a physician focused on women's health and wellness and a staff physician at the Menopause Clinic at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Medical Director of PearlMDRejuvenation, a women's health and wellness facility. You can follow her on Twitter @drjpearlman.