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5 Things to Know Before You Start Eye Exercises

Should you be exercising your eyes? Here’s what experts say about vision therapy programs that claim to improve your eyesight

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Maybe you’ve seen social media posts, smartphone apps or ads promoting eye exercises as a way to ease eye strain, improve your vision or banish wrinkles. Some even promise to eliminate the need for glasses or contacts.

While there are some eye exercises that can be beneficial, experts say it’s important to know that there’s no scientific evidence showing that a regimen of eye exercises can “fix” your eyesight.

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“No scientific evidence shows any effectiveness to the self-help stuff you might find on the internet,” says Ron Benner, president of the American Optometric Association and an optometrist in Laurel, Montana. “You need to differentiate that from doctor-prescribed vision therapy.” 

Vision therapy is a specific type of program that doctors may prescribe to help with certain eye conditions, but those conditions mostly affect younger patients, Benner says.

Here’s five more things you need to know before you start eye exercises:

1. Eye exercises won’t correct most vision problems

While eye exercises are unlikely to cause any harm, there is also no proof that eye exercises or vision training can make your eyesight sharper, the American Academy of Ophthalmology says.

Problems that require corrective lenses such as nearsightedness, farsightedness or astigmatism are caused by the structure or shape of the eye – not a muscle weakness – so exercises are unlikely to have any benefit, Benner says.

Exercises also won’t help you ditch your reading glasses. Presbyopia, the condition that makes it difficult to focus on close-up objects as you age, happens when the lens thickens with age and gets stiffer.  Strengthening your eye muscles won’t make your lens any more flexible, Benner says.

Other conditions that affect vision including cataracts and macular degeneration also can’t be treated with exercises, he says.

 “There are no real exercises to help with the eyesight problems that tend to come with getting older,” Benner says.

2. Visual pencil pushups and other therapies can help with certain conditions

If a patient has one of a few specific conditions, mostly related to eye muscle control, doctor-prescribed exercises called vision therapy may help.

Studies show eye exercises are effective in treating a condition called convergence insufficiency, says Ethan Greenberg, an ophthalmologist with M Health Fairview and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

That’s when the eyes don’t work together to focus on close-up objects, and studies show the condition can improve if patients do an exercise called “pencil pushups,” in which they stare at a pencil as they hold it closer and further away from their nose.

“That’s the only thing that definitely shows evidence of using exercises to improve vision,” Greenberg says. “All other exercises that are sometimes touted by optometrists/vision therapists do not have much support within the ophthalmology community.”

Eye providers may also prescribe vision therapy for crossed eyes, a lazy eye, double vision or poor depth perception, Benner says. Some small studies also suggest that eye exercises could help improve nearsightedness in children whose eyes are still growing.


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3. Eye exercises can help with eye strain

If you spend a lot of time staring at your computer or phone, you can “exercise” your eyes to help prevent digital eye strain.

Symptoms include red, watery or irritated eyes, heavy eyelids, blurred vision, headache or eye spasms. Many older adults also develop a condition called dry eye that is exacerbated by screen time.

The easiest, most proven exercise you can do to ease eye strain is to follow what’s called the 20-20-20 rule, experts say: After 20 minutes of looking at a screen, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away.  

“When you do close work, you’re pointing your eyeballs toward each other, and that really does put strain on the muscle systems,” Benner says. “They fatigue after a while. Giving them a rest is vital to making sure they stay comfortable.”

If you have dry eye, Christopher Starr, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and an ophthalmologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, also recommends adding a fourth step to the exercise: squeezing your eyes shut for 20 seconds, which “distributes tears across the ocular surface and rewets your eyes.”

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4. The best exercises for your eyes may be those that work your whole body

If you really want to protect your vision, exercising your body may be a better bet than exercising your eyes. Research shows that people who exercise regularly are less likely to develop serious eye diseases.

In one study of more than 3,800 people, researchers found that people who exercised three times a week were significantly less likely to develop age-related macular degeneration than people who didn’t exercise.

Another study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that regular exercise was linked to a 53 percent lower risk of glaucoma, a serious eye disease that can damage the optic nerve and cause vision loss or blindness if left untreated.

Exercise also helps people with diabetes manage the condition and reduce the risk of complications, including diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of vision loss among working age adults, the academy says.

5. Don’t forget your annual eye exam

Benner worries that people who invest in eye exercise apps and programs may put off seeing a doctor who can diagnose what is really causing their vision problems.

If you have dry eye, for example, your optometrist may be able to relieve your symptoms with a treatment to plug your tear ducts. An eye exam is also important for diagnosing age-related eye diseases such as cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and macular degeneration, which can erode eyesight if they aren’t identified early.

“Exercises are not the answer for eyes getting older,” Benner says. “Instead, make sure your eyes are healthy. Make sure you have the proper correction on. You’ve got to start with that comprehensive eye exam.”

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