Eye health – it’s something we sometimes take for granted, the ability to see, but certain vision-robbing diseases become more common as we age. The risk of developing these eye-related problems is influenced by lifestyle. Eating a healthy diet, staying physically active, and protecting your eyes from the sun can help you keep your peepers healthy as the years pass.
You might not think of exercise as being a vision-healthy habit but there’s growing evidence that it is. Working out regularly may not give you 20/20 vision or keep you from needing glasses to decipher the phone message once you reach your mid—40s but it may lower your risk of developing more serious eye problems, problems that can permanently reduce your ability to see clearly.
What are some of the eye problems exercise may prevent? You’re probably most familiar with cataracts, a condition where the lens of the eye becomes cloudy. The lens is the portion of the eye that focuses light on the light-sensitive retina in the back of the eye. If the lens is too cloudy, your vision becomes hazy. One of the first signs of cataracts is often difficulty seeing at night. As cataracts advance, colors become faded and you might have difficulty reading and doing close-up work as well. You might also find that when you look at a light, it appears too bright and may even have a halo around it. Cataracts are primarily due to aging and can be corrected with a simple surgery that improves vision in 90% of cases.
Other Eye Problems That Exercise May Prevent
Cataracts are one of the most common eye conditions related to aging, but, more serious, is a vision-robbing condition called glaucoma. This eye condition is marked by the build-up of pressure behind the eye. Over time, the pressure build-up can damage the optic nerve, the nerve that carries visual information from the light-sensitive retina to the brain. Glaucoma can come on gradually as the pressure behind the eye, also known as intraocular pressure, increases little by little and slowly damages the optic nerve or suddenly when the pressure builds quickly and causes abrupt onset of eye pain, headache, and blurred vision. When it appears gradually, you may not notice any significant change to your vision, yet damage is taking place. That’s why it’s important to get your eyes checked regularly for early signs of pressure build-up. Untreated, glaucoma can lead to visual loss.
Finally, there’s age-related macular degeneration of the eye. This is a condition that affects the retina in the back of the eye, particularly a structure called the macula. The macula of the retina is responsible for making what you see in the center of your eye clear and allows you to see details. In fact, age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is the most common cause of visual loss in people over the age of 50. AMD can come on slowly but often starts with blurriness of central vision. When you look straight ahead, you might see a blurred area or even a blank spot. Distinguishing faces and reading become more difficult and colors may appear faded.
Exercise and Eye Health
Of course, you don’t want any of these eye problems. Can exercise lower your risk? We know that exercise enhances brain health and even slows the loss of volume in areas of the brain involved with memory, particularly the hippocampus. But, what can it do for your eyes? We talked about glaucoma, the vision-compromising condition marked by the build-up of pressure behind the eye. Studies show that aerobic exercise seems to lower intraocular pressure, thereby lowering stress on the optic nerve. In fact, a study found that people who get little physical activity were seven times more likely to develop cataracts relative to those who exercised moderately.
What about age-related macular degeneration? A study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology found that exercising lowered the risk of AMD by 70%. Other health habits that lower your risk include not smoking and eating a nutrient-rich diet, including lots of fruits and vegetables. Lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids abundant in fruits and vegetables, are linked with a lower risk of this common eye problem. Also, wear sunglasses when you’re outside in the sun. Ultraviolet light damages the retina of the eyes, increasing the risk of macular degeneration and also boosts the risk of cataracts. Make sure your sunglasses offer 100% protection against UV light.
Exercise also seems to lower the risk of the most common eye-related problem, cataracts. When researchers at Berkeley followed more than 40,000 runners for over seven years, they found that running was associated with a lower risk of both age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Based on the research, moderate-intensity exercise was correlated with a reduced risk as well as more modest quantities of vigorous exercise. So, high-intensity interval sessions may be protective against future visual problems as well.
Exercise also helps with blood sugar and blood pressure control. High blood pressure and high blood sugar both increase the risk of eye-related problems, particularly glaucoma and cataracts. So, exercise reduces the risk of health issues that raise the risk of vision-robbing diseases.
The Bottom Line
Exercise is beneficial for every organ in your body, including your eyes. Take advantage of the health-protective effects that exercise offers for every part of your body, including your eyes. You know that exercise has health benefits and now you can add eye health to the list of positive effects exercise has on your body. What’s not to love about that?
Science Daily. “Another reason to exercise: Protecting your sight”
National Eye Institute. “Facts About Cataract”
National Eye Institute. “Facts About Age-Related Macular Degeneration”
DavisVision.com. “Can Regular Exercise Keep Your Vision Healthy?”
WebMD. “Can Diabetes Affect Your Eyes?”
VisualHealth.com. “Ways to Lower Your Risk for Age-related Macular Degeneration”
World Health Organization. “The Known Health Effects of UV”
YourSightMatters.com. “Exercise Can Help Prevent Cataracts”
Berkeley Lab. “Vigorous Exercise May Help Prevent Vision Loss”