If you work out relatively often, chances are that any of your workouts count as “strenuous activity”. Take that into consideration when selecting a date for your tattoo, and understand that, for both your own health and safety and for the integrity of the tattoo, it’s best to stay away from gyms and any serious training for 14 days after your sessions.
If you’re anything like us, this can be deeply frustrating. We like to be physically active, and the recovery period after getting a tattoo can be really agonizing not because of the itchiness or the discomfort of an open wound, but the fact that we’re essentially bed-ridden (we’re not, but it can feel that way sometimes).
But it’s important to understand why exercise can be so detrimental to the development of a good-looking tattoo.
How Does Training Affect a Tattoo?
Our ancestors didn’t exactly have anyone around to tell them to stay away from strenuous activity after getting a tattoo. However, to our ancestors, getting a tattoo was also a much more involved and far more risky process than it is today.
Tools often weren’t sterilized, inks were made with dangerous compounds to elicit certain colors, and infection was unfortunately common. If you survived a large tattoo, you bore not only a work of art, but a sign of true courage and determination.
It’s part of what made skin art alluring and central to so many cultures across the globe, even when the practice developed independent from other cultures. It’s part of why tattooing is linked so intricately with scarification in some places, a practice that arguably only exists to draw out greater meaning from suffering.
Now that we can afford to get tattoos in hyper-controlled conditions with disposable and sterile tools, ultra-safe inks, and over-the-counter medication to soothe itching, deal with infection, and reduce the risks of bearing an open wound, getting a tattoo is a relatively low-risk endeavor. It’d be a shame to throw all of that careful risk aversion out the window by strolling into a gym, where bacteria and fungi spread easily through puddles of moisture and massive amounts of daily interhuman contact.
What about training at home, you might ask? Well, we’re not just worried about getting other people’s bacteria into your wound. Because a tattoo is a wound filled with foreign (albeit safe) material, it also tends to flare up your immune system.
As a result, your body is working on fighting against what might be a possible infection or dangerous intrusion of your very delicate biology, which means an increased blood flow to the area, as well as the mobilization of a bunch of white blood cells. Allocating resources away from your tattoo by working out can potentially slow the healing process, which you don’t want to do.
There’s also the fact that if you happen to train a freshly-tattooed area of the body, your skin may distend and stretch as a result of your muscle swelling in response to training (filling with blood, water, and sugar). You might distort the tattoo itself or tear open scabs and further interfere with the healing process.
Even if you train an entirely different portion of the body (i.e. doing legs after tattooing your forearm), you may still be interfering with the healing process by diverting attention from the wound.
What About Sweat?
Sweat isn’t generally a problem for your tattoo – especially if it’s your own sweat. But sweat can be a catalyst for a bunch of other problems. While having moisturized skin is great, sweat is the kind of moisture that just sits on the surface of your skin rather than being absorbed into it. Sweating excessively on a fresh tattoo can increase your chances of getting an infection by creating a nice, warm, moist environment for bacteria to spread and proliferate.
That isn’t to say you should somehow try and be 100% dry throughout the entire healing process. However, do try to minimize how much you sweat, keep your skin healthy with a little (not a lot!) of lotion, and try to keep dirt, bacteria, and insects away from your skin by covering your tattoo with a thin film for the first couple of hours after the session (up to about 48 hours, depending on the size of the tattoo).
Again, the primary concern here is minimizing the risk of infection, while trying to maintain the integrity of the tattoo by keeping the skin healthy, letting it breathe (after your tattoo artist says it’s okay to remove the film), and avoiding anything that might stretch or excessively pull on the skin while it’s healing.
What About Swimming?
It’s tradition in some places to “baptize” yourself in the ocean after getting a tattoo, but it’s not necessarily the best idea. Not only is it likely incredibly painful (unless you’re going for a dip in a fresh water lake), but you have to remember that most bodies of water are ecosystems, and while our skin is meant to protect us from whatever might be in those ecosystems, it can’t really do so while it’s damaged.
If you’ve got a small tattoo, you’re probably fine to go swimming with some friends once it’s healed up enough that the water doesn’t sting – but the bigger the tattoo, the greater the risk.
Then there’s also the fact that swimming usually also involves plenty of sun exposure, which is a terrible idea for a healing tattoo. Tattoos hate the sun, especially when they’re fresh, and any excessive exposure to UV will cause your tattoo to fade much faster than if you simply stay patient and postpone your skinny-dipping session.
Going swimming in clothing is also a bad idea because that way you’re trapping both moisture and countless microorganisms between your wound and the clothing you’re wearing.
And don’t even get me started on pools. Public, private, indoor, outdoor – all pools contain chemicals that can easily irritate the skin and slow the healing process, while public pools have the added benefit of exposing you to any number of potential bacteria and fungi due to sharing the same pool water as a large crowd of attending strangers. At least most lakes and oceans are big enough to dilute that risk.
Exercise Some Common Sense and Caution
If you’re planning to get a tattoo, make sure to clear your calendar for the next two weeks if you’re an athlete or a generally active person. It won’t kill you to take a two-week break from training, regardless of what your sport is, and if it’s the middle of the season and you really need to be at the top of your game, wait until after the big competition to get your planned tattoo.
Sure, you can risk it and head back into training after just a few days. But understand that you’re risking infection and major damage to the quality of the tattoo, as well as prolonging how long the healing process is going to take overall.
It’s not a bad idea to promote blood flow and keep yourself a little active – i.e., don’t regress fully into a couch potato and enjoy a light stroll with your dog through the park – but stay away from training and strenuous activities.