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16 May 2022

Need exercise motivation? Getting active could help protect your eyes

Two men laughing and holding bottles of water after exercising

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to look after your overall physical and mental health, and research suggests it may help lower your eye pressure. The problem for most of us is finding the motivation to get going! If that sounds familiar, don’t be too hard on yourself – it’s a normal human reaction. Our ancestors evolved to avoid wasting needless energy. Any hunter-gatherer who decided to go for a run just for health reasons probably ended up starving and never passed on their genes.

But a body of research suggests safe exercise may be a good way of keeping your eyes healthy, which should serve as motivation for all of us. Exercise in general improves blood flow around the body, including to the eyes and brain. Some studies have shown that regularly taking part in moderately vigorous exercise seems to lower eye pressure. It’s not clear how long this effect lasts for, as most research shows the eye pressure returns to its baseline within minutes[1].

Luckily, it also seems you don’t have to work really hard: for once, it might not be “no pain, no gain”. One small study suggests that an increased general activity level seems to be associated with slower progression of glaucoma. This could be walking more than 5,000 steps a day or taking part in several hours of non-sedentary activity each day, which could be as simple as cleaning the house. However, the researchers acknowledge that it’s not clear what causes what: is it that the activity level itself protects the vision, or simply that people who have better vision tend to be more active[2]?

If you rarely exercise at the moment though, any increase in activity will result in positive outcomes for your health

If you rarely exercise at the moment though, any increase in activity will result in positive outcomes for your health, and possibly also your eyes. The best thing you can do is get started. Some research indicates that the eye pressure-lowering effects of exercise might be greater in people who don’t currently take part in any form of activity[3].

Just building small habits that will be sustainable in the long term may help improve the health of your eyes and the way you feel on a daily basis.

One thing you should be mindful of is that some forms of exercise can increase your eye pressure. When we exert ourselves, such as when lifting heavy weights, we strain and hold our breath. This causes eye pressure to rise. This effect seems to be temporary, and we don’t know how this may impact glaucoma. We recommend that you stick to using lighter weights, which can still give you the benefits of a good workout but will reduce the risk of increasing your eye pressure. If you do prefer resistance training, it’s important that you continue to exhale throughout the exercise, as this limits the increase in eye pressure.

A senior female enjoys dancing in the garden at an autumn tea party. Adults dance around her and colourful bunting and balloons decorate the garden.

You should also be careful of some yoga positions. There’s no clear evidence to suggest that certain yoga poses – especially if they are held for short periods – are detrimental to someone’s glaucoma. But there is reason to be cautious with exercises that involve lowering your head below your heart, sometimes called inverted positions, as they tend to increase eye pressure. The safest way to practice yoga if you have glaucoma is to avoid inversions altogether, especially if your glaucoma is more advanced. However, your yoga instructor may be able to help you design a modified practice that reduces the potential effects on eye pressure. If you’re unsure at all, it’s best to get approval from your eye specialist before practising any pose that places your head below your heart.

By following this guidance, you can feel all the benefits that exercise has on your general well-being as well as your eyes. What better reason than to get out and enjoy some sunshine as the weather gets warmer and the days longer!




This article was originally written for Insight magazine.