In my mid-20s, I embarked on the adventure of living carless in a tragically auto-dependent Midwestern city—something I couldn’t have done without my bicycle.
And what a bicycle it was! A Schwinn World Sport from the 1980s, it was black with hot pink striping. It had track wheels (completely unnecessarily) black-wrapped flop and chop bars, and that rear hub? You’d better believe it was fixed.
It was the ’00s. It was the Midwest. Fixed-gear bicycles were a thing, okay?
All this is to say I had finally broken through into the territory of the legitimately cool—or so I thought. I pictured myself skidding to a stop and crowds erupting into cheers.
That’s why I was so confused when, that first summer, I’d pedal for half an hour up a hill to meet a promising date only to be greeted with with the shame-inducing inquiry:
“What is wrong with your face?! Are you okay?”
I learned it the hard way: When I exert myself, my face turns intensely red and blotchy. It is not a good look for a night out.
Much later, when the bike-only lifestyle collapsed and I slouched into my true and stationary adulthood, I got a gym membership. There I learned I am not alone. I’d sit there pumping away at a stationary bicycle, going nowhere, pretending to locomote despite a daily commute by car, and I’d spot them: my red-faced compatriots.
Are we sick? Is our fate normal? And, most importantly, can the affliction of red-faced people everywhere be used as a legitimate, doctor-sponsored excuse to stop exercising now and forever?
The answers are, respectively: no, yes, and no. Here’s why.
The Real Reasons Your Face Gets Flushed During Workouts
Lots of fair-complected folks share my tomato-faced concern. Readers asked Time magazine health writer Markham Heid about this phenomenon. Heid turned to Edward Coyle, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, for official answers.
Getting flushed during exertion is normal for lots of people, Coyle told Heid.
“As your body heats up during activity, your core temperature and your skin temperature increase,” Coyle said. In response, the blood vessels close to the surface of the skin open up, distributing more blood at skin level.
“This helps cool your blood and therefore your body,” Coyle explained. “But especially if your skin is very pale to begin with, that increased blood flow may result in a red or flushed appearance.”
But that’s not all. Individual differences in skin chemistry can also contribute to this sometimes-embarrassing flush.
“For some people, exercise can cause the cells in the skin to release histamine, which in turn can cause the blood vessels to widen, adding to the exercise-induced flushing,” dermatologist Adam Friedman told Heid.
Like just about everything else—your complexion, body shape, predisposition toward depression, whatever—you can thank your genes for the extremity of your exercise-induced flush. There are worse problems to have.
Today, I ride a bike with lots of gears. Sometimes I even ride it to work. On those rare occasions, I stagger into the office, drenched in sweat, with a purplish face that frankly concerns my co-workers.
So what? I’m fresh out of things to prove. That’s the consolation prize that comes with the end of youth, and besides, the doctors say it’s normal.
How to Address Your Post-Workout Flush
If you’re still in the ride-your-bike-to-a-hot-first-date chapter of life, you might have a vested interest in getting rid of the post-workout flush as quickly as possible.
According to Shape magazine, the trick is to cool your body down or to avoid getting quite so hot in the first place.
“Make time to gradually reduce your heart rate at the end of your workout,” New York Dermatology Group dermatologist Jessica Weiser told Shape.
Don’t skip the cool-down, and remember to stretch.
Even better, leave the house a bit early so you can bike to your sweetheart’s place at a leisurely pace.
“Doing lower intensity exercises and intermittently taking breaks will bring down your heart rate to help relieve redness before it gets out of hand,” Weiser said.