Exercise and Hair Loss

Can vigorous exercise actually CAUSE hair loss?

The idea of something so beneficial having a negative impact on our hair seems particularly unfair. But there ARE ways in which exercise can cause problems, particularly for those of us who are already affected by weak or damaged hair.

The purpose of this article is not to suggest that you stop exercising - in fact, the improved blood circulation following a good workout is beneficial to hair growth. And for women with PCOS-related hair loss, a solid fitness plan is key to solving the problem.

Instead, then, the aim of this page is to look at the various ways in which exercise can increase hair loss... and how to stop it from happening!

Is there a connection between exercise and hair loss

Note: This information does not constitute medical advice. It is important to consult a health professional for a proper diagnosis of your hair loss.

There are various ways in which your fitness routine may be impacting your hair.

Sweating (or should we say perspiring?)

'Sweat is just fat crying!'

That's a great quote to get you motivated in the gym and certainly helps you look at sweat in a positive way! Unfortunately, though, a head drenched in sweat can play havoc with your hair.

The problem is that sweat has a drying effect on your strands and leaves them looking dull. If you're prone to breakage, you could well see an increase by allowing sweat to dry in your hair.

Some sources point to the lactic acid in sweat as the culprit, suggesting that it strips the hair of protein. However, I could find very little scientific evidence to support this, aside from this article by trichologist Erkkie Harris-Wells. The article suggests that lactic acid also shrinks the hair follicles - which sounds alarming. But it then goes on to mention the author's line of products designed to counteract this effect... which does lead one to wonder about the  scientific truth behind the claims!

Nevertheless, sweat undoubtedly dries the hair - and dryness isn't the only issue . A sweaty scalp can lead to itching and encourage the growth of scalp bacteria and fungus. As we explain on our itchy scalp page, persistent scratching can trigger hair loss, whilst a less-than-healthy scalp can inhibit hair growth.

So the safest option is to rinse sweat from the hair after working out (unless - like one of our readers - you appreciate the extra volume that your post-workout hair has when it dries!). 

Should you shampoo your hair after every workout?

In a word, no!

Unless you only exercise a couple of times a week, shampooing your hair after every workout is likely to cause more damage than the sweat, because it strips the hair of its natural oils.

If possible, try to wash with shampoo only once every 2 to 3 days.

Here are a few ways to keep your locks looking clean and smelling sweet in the meantime...

  • Rinse your hair after your workout with water ONLY.

  • If your ends are particularly dry, add a little conditioner after rinsing - making sure it doesn't get on to the roots - then rinse again.
  • Forget water altogether and use dry shampoo.

Tips for using dry shampoo

Dry shampoo can be an absolute lifesaver if you work out regularly, but you need to use it properly for best results.

  • Always, always shake dry shampoo for at least 30 seconds before you use it, to properly disperse the ingredients. This should help avoid the 'caking' for which dry shampoo is notorious.

  • Don't wait until after your workout... spray your roots with dry shampoo before you start. This will help soak up moisture as you exercise.

  • If you need to use dry shampoo post-workout, don't apply it while your hair is wet - it will look 'cake-y' and you'll be forced to go for a full shampoo! Instead, dry your hair first with the 'cool' setting of your hairdryer, or allow it to dry naturally.

How to protect your hair from sweat during your workout

In addition to applying dry shampoo before you start, try these tips...

Try to keep your hair back.

There are various ways to accomplish this. A bandana can be useful, as it doesn't stress the hair too much, as can a good sweat band made from a 'moisture wicking' fabric. Make sure your sweat band isn't too tight, or you may put yourself at risk of traction alopecia. If you're prone to traction alopecia, then simply leave the hair down and rinse off any sweat.

Some women like to tie their hair back in a ponytail, but I find that a ponytail needs to be quite tight to keep the hair secure. This puts the roots under stress. And if your fitness routine involves a lot of mat work, a ponytail at the back of your head can be pretty uncomfortable.

Instead, try dividing your hair into pigtails and securing them at the sides - I find they stay in better and distribute the tension, making them more comfortable and better for the hair.

Another option - if your hair is long enough - is to loosely braid the hair around the face.

If none of those options work for you, try securing the hair back with bobby pins. This allows you to hold the hair back in sections, thereby allowing a little more circulation to the scalp and reducing perspiration.

Keep a small towel to hand when you exercise.

Use it to dry off excess sweat as you go. 

And if you are exercising outdoors, remember to use a UV protector on your hair too.

Swimming

Swimming brings its own unique challenges if you suffer from hair loss or damaged hair - so much so, that we have a separate article devoted to it!

Please see How to  Stop Hair Damage from Swimming

Stress

Exercise can be a great for relieving emotional stress - but some experts feel that exercising excessively - over a long period of time - can put the body into a state of chronic physiological stress. (Please note: Up to one hour of daily exercise up to 5 days per week is NOT considered to be excessive).

Extreme dieting can also contribute to the problem.

Please see this article which explains how stress can trigger hair loss.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Nutrition plays a big part in healthy hair growth - so it's very important to ensure that our nutritional intake meets our needs if we are exercising on a regular basis.

The problem for many of us is that we exercise in order to lose weight, whilst simultaneously cutting calories. This may mean that we are cutting back on certain foods at a time when we are actually INCREASING the need for them, potentially leading to deficiencies.

Protein

Protein deficiency is not particularly common - but if you are cutting back on the calories AND doing a lot of exercise, it's possible that you are not getting the protein your body needs.

Our hair is around 97% protein, so it's crucial we monitor our intake in order to keep it strong and healthy.

Pure, natural protein is preferable to protein shakes - and an added bonus of consuming protein-rich foods is that they keep us feeling full for longer.

Good sources of protein include Greek yogurt, lean meat, poultry, fish, tofu, lentils and eggs. (Nuts are good too, but not so good if you're counting the calories!).

Iron

Of particular importance are our iron levels - as explained on this page, sufficient iron is essential for healthy hair growth.

Some doctors may dismiss the idea, but there is research to support the fact that a lot of exercise can lead to iron deficiency. And iron deficiency - as we know - can lead to hair loss.

This article - published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition - states that iron deficiency tends to be higher in athletic populations. The article acknowledges that this could be due to dietary choices - women who do a lot of exercise are generally more likely to limit their food intake, thereby cutting back on the amount of iron-rich foods they consume.

But the article also refers to evidence that exercise can lead to 'increased rates of red cell iron and whole-body iron turnover'. In other words, we use up our iron stores more quickly when we engage in regular physical activity.

And women following a vegetarian diet may have an even harder time maintaining healthy iron levels, since iron from meat is better absorbed by the body than iron from plant-based foods.

Your multivitamin may not be the answer...

This study also notes that the bioavailability of iron from multivitamins is not as high as from a standard iron supplement, which means that our multivitamin may not give us the amount of iron we need.

How to ensure your iron levels are adequate...

  • If you're watching your calories, make sure that a good proportion of the foods you are consuming are good sources of iron. If you exercise only a modest amount,  this is relatively easy to accomplish. Studies have shown that consuming a single, meat-containing meal a day is enough to maintain ferritin levels for a fitness routine consisting of aerobic dance workouts .
    Click here for a list of other foods rich in iron (including non-meat options)

  •  Have your iron levels checked by your doctor - this requires a simple blood test. It is very important that you only take an iron supplement if advised to do so by your doctor. Too much iron can be dangerous (please click here for more information about iron overload).

  • Don't assume that your multivitamin is meeting your body's iron needs. Not only is the iron less well absorbed, multivitamins are often taken along with a meal - or a cup of tea/coffee - which can reduce absorption even further.
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We hope that you've found this information about exercise and hair loss helpful - if you have any questions or tips for protecting your hair during exercise, please let me know.

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