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The lowdown on eye exercises

If you wear glasses or contacts, chances are you’ve been at least a little bit tempted to investigate the infomercials and books promoting eye exercises to improve your eyesight without surgery. Some programs even claim that faithful adherents may be able to give up their glasses. If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

Purveyors of self-directed eye exercise programs have not conducted randomized trials to verify the effectiveness of their programs, and there is no medical evidence for their oft-stated claim that wearing lenses weakens the eyes and necessitates ever-stronger prescription eyewear. Furthermore, some programs are based on ideas that don’t quite square with the anatomy and physiology of vision.

Practiced faithfully, eye exercises may actually help delay the need for glasses or contacts in some people. But you don’t need to buy a special program of exercises or follow prescribed visual gymnastics to accomplish these things. If your eyes are tired from excessive close-up work — such as staring at the computer — visual breaks to focus on objects at longer distances are a good idea. And it’s important to encourage your visual system to do its best.

Exercising eye muscles will not eliminate the most common maladies that necessitate corrective lenses — namely, nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism, and presbyopia (age-related lens stiffening). Above all, eye exercises will do nothing for glaucoma and macular degeneration.

What of the claim that glasses make eyes weaker and more dependent on wearing them? It’s largely a matter of perception. People often tolerate a lot of blur before they start wearing corrective lenses, Dr. Steinert says, but “once they get used to the correction, the same level of blur is no longer acceptable to them. So they perceive that their eyes have been weakened.” Also, the natural progression to stronger and stronger lenses that accompanies nearsightedness early in life may create the impression that corrective lenses make eyes weaker. Presbyopia (age-related lens stiffening) likewise progresses with time, so a farsighted person will find it increasingly difficult to see well without corrective eyewear. In none of these cases have glasses or contacts weakened the eyes.

Will getting a weaker prescription than you’re used to somehow train your eyes to see better, as some eye exercise programs advise? It’s certainly possible that some people wear stronger glasses than they need, so they may be able to back off their prescription a bit. You need to use your accommodative system to keep it flexible, and you can facilitate this by wearing lenses no stronger than you need. Also, don’t be in a hurry to start wearing reading glasses. But wearing weaker lenses than you need won’t help, especially once presbyopia kicks in.

Until evidence-based research proves otherwise, it’s safe to assume that nonmedical self-help eye exercise programs won’t keep you out of glasses if you need them and won’t change the ultimate course of your nearsightedness, farsightedness, presbyopia, or astigmatism. As we age, eye exercises do absolutely nothing for glaucoma or macular degeneration — serious diseases that require professional medical help.

September 2003 Update

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