Can you exercise your eyes to improve your vision?
Just as muscle-strengthening movements and physical activity is beneficial for our bodies, exercising is also important for our eyes. But what exactly do eye exercises entail, and can they actually do anything to correct our vision?
For starters, it’s important to understand what eye exercises are, and how they differ drastically from vision correction. The two fields offer entirely different benefits, and should not be confused with one another.
FYidoctors’ very own Dr. Ben Wild shares his insights on the subject of exercising for the eyes, and explains why refractive issues—such as myopia and hyperopia—are better managed with glasses and contact lenses. In short, there’s a time and place for eye exercises—and when used appropriately, they can work wonders to address various eye-related issues.
What is vision therapy?
“Vision therapy” is an umbrella term, used to describe certain exercises or optometry approaches that improve visual skills or abilities. Eye exercises fit within this realm, and are regularly regarded as “physical therapy” for the eyes.
“There are definite advantages to eye exercises,” explained Dr. Wild. “There has been a lot of measurable success in the field.”
That being said, “some are scientifically based, and then you go further and further towards things that haven’t been fully proven yet,” he cautioned.
Indeed, some widely believed theories contend that eye exercises can actually alter prescriptions, though these speculations have yet to be proven true—and some of these methods are dangerous to execute.
“It’s a really new avenue of research, and so a lot of the forefront thinkings or hypotheses still haven’t been fully validated by science yet,” Dr. Wild said.
The Bates Method
A prime example of an unproven vision therapy theory is the Bates Method, which wrongly stipulates that certain visualization exercises (such as staring into the sun, envisioning moving letters, and using your palms to apply pressure on the eyes) can improve myopia (short-sightedness), astigmatism, and other refractive errors.
The theory, coined by American physician William Bates, who died in 1931, has been repeatedly disproven. Not only is the method ineffective at correcting vision—it is also potentially hazardous.
“His hypotheses were that prescriptions were an accumulation of lifetime eyestrain and by alleviating that eyestrain you could get rid of the prescription,” Dr. Wild explained. “He’s not the only one in the field; many people have written books on this.”
Bates's method, and those that have followed it, differ from current eye exercise approaches in that they advocate against wearing glasses, while vision therapy seeks to remedy visual problems using a combination of glasses, contacts, and exercises Dr. Wild said. As such, vision therapy is a combination of prescription management, such as glasses and contact lenses, and eye exercises to treat eye conditions like amblyopia (reduced vision in one eye) and strabismus (imbalanced muscles in one eye, causing eyesight to wander or appear crossed). Eye exercises are also beneficial for treating patients who have suffered from a concussion, or traumatic brain injury or have issues with depth perception.
When are eye exercises useful?
“It really depends on exactly what’s going on,” Dr. Wild said in response to that question. “The cool part of vision therapy is that it has very easily measurable success.”
In other words, it’s very obvious when eye exercises work to address a given problem.
Generally speaking, eye exercises work to strengthen the muscles around your eyes, helping them to work better and more efficiently. This will enable improved focus, and will also stimulate the brain’s vision center—making it easier to control your eye muscles and use your two eyes in tandem.
Dr. Wild noted that eye exercises are especially useful in cases where a patient struggles to use both their eyes in conjunction, and can be transformative for people who “have trouble focusing with both eyes,” he said. “Having a dysfunction in one or both eyes can mean it’s difficult to change your focus from far away to up close. This could lead to eyestrain.”
The goal of eye exercises, Dr. Wild said, is to encourage the eyes to work together, which strengthens overall vision. While these exercises will not in any way improve one’s prescription, they have the propensity to help a person see better on the whole.
Eye exercises are also useful for professional athletes, who can train their eye muscles to improve their hand-eye coordination and reactivity time. In the case of sports vision therapy, “you’re increasing the ability, you’re not correcting something that’s wrong,” Dr. Wild said.
How to exercise your eyes
In order to comprehend how eye exercises work—and why they’re beneficial—it’s useful to have some background knowledge on the structure of the eye and how it moves.
“There’s actually six muscles around each eye,” Dr. Wild said. “If one of these muscles isn’t pulling its weight or is overworking, it can throw off the balance of the whole eye.”
“There’s a whole bunch of fragile networks that go into the eyes being able to see well together, which leads to issues popping up pretty prevalently,” he added. “But the cool part is you can rebalance them with vision therapy.”
One of the most common eye exercises is using “Hart Charts,” which address binocular vision problems (the inability to use both eyes properly together). A patient is encouraged to shift focus between staring at a chart three meters away, then staring at a smaller chart 20 centimeters away.
“I like to call it a push up for your eye muscles,” Dr. Wild said.
Other eye exercises include applying physical pressure to the eye with a Marsden ball and using a Brock string to practice converging and diverging your eyes at near and distant focal lengths. Of course, everyone’s needs differ depending on their condition, so it’s important to consult your doctor to determine the best eye exercises for you. (Take this as your reminder to book a comprehensive eye exam at a FYidoctors clinic near you!)
While eye exercises can be useful to people of all ages, they are especially effective in children, whose neural pathways have yet to be fully developed. That’s why it’s important for children to also get their eyes checked regularly, as preventative measures may be taken to mitigate serious eye concerns in their future.
Managing myopia and slowing down prescription changes
As mentioned above, while eye exercises can help treat certain eye conditions, they cannot correct vision.
“Can someone improve their eyesight through eye exercises?” Dr. Wild asked. “What I have to say at this stage is: unfortunately, the answer remains no so far, based on the things that have been scientifically verified.”
Still, he said, “that doesn’t mean it’s not necessarily possible, it just means we may not have figured out how yet.”
For the time being, the best way to manage refractive errors—including myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia(farsightedness), and astigmatism (an imperfection in the shape of the eye)—is to correct vision with glasses or contact lenses. While neither of these methods speed up or slow down the progression of vision changes, they correct them with you can see clearly.
As Dr. Wild explains, “Canada’s rate of nearsightedness was 25% 40 years ago, and now it’s 50%,”. This can be attributed to factors such as increased time spent indoors and in front of screens. To combat this issue, various methods of peripheral defocus correction are available such as contacts, glasses, and atropine eye drops. Additionally, a combination of good vision correction care and focus exercise can reduce eye strain and improve vision.
It's important to note that while eye exercises can be an effective method for certain vision conditions, they are not an all-encompassing solution. To ensure that all potential causes of vision issues are addressed, it's essential to schedule regular comprehensive eye exams with a professional like FYidoctors. Our optometrists can provide personalized guidance on easy eye exercises that can help strengthen your eye muscles and improve your visual skills.
One very simple exercise is the “20-20-20 rule” which involves taking a 20-second break every 20 minutes to look away from your screen to an object sitting 20 feet (6.1 metres) away. Another is to hold your thumb at arm's length and slowly move it closer to your eyes, this will help to strengthen the eye muscles. When you feel your eyes starting to strain, close your eyes for a moment, and then do the exercise over again. On a final note, vision therapy can be an effective treatment for certain eye defects. Don't wait, book an appointment with your nearest FYidoctors’ location today to learn more about how to improve your vision through these exercises and reduce every form of eye strain.