Dr. Monica Ertel Answers The Question: Is Exercise Good For Your Eye Health?
Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. Health experts often tout the positive effects of exercise: reduced blood pressure, reduced cardiovascular risk, improved metabolism and insulin resistance, strengthened muscles and bones, to name a few. But did you know that the benefits of exercise extend to the eyes? Here we’ll discuss just how exercise exerts its beneficial effects on the eyes, and review the literature on those benefits in the most common eye diseases.
By Monica Ertel, MD, PhD, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Colorado Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center
Why is exercise good for your eyes?
During physical movement, there is an increased demand for oxygen in the body as your metabolism increases. In order to meet this demand, there is increased blood flow throughout the body, including to the small blood vessels of the eye. This allows for increased delivery of oxygen and removal of the waste products of metabolism. Furthermore, research has shown decreased inflammation levels in patients who participate in regular physical activity. As you can imagine, improved oxygen delivery and reduced inflammation are a recipe for improved eye health. In addition, exercise reduces high blood pressure and improves diabetes control — these are both diseases that can cause eye serious eye problems.
Exercise and age-related macular degeneration
Age related macular degeneration (also known as macular degeneration) is the most common cause of vision loss in the United States in patients older than 50 years of age. It is a disease that causes blurring of the central part of vision and can make it hard to perform visual tasks like reading or watching TV. The likelihood of developing macular degeneration increases with age and it is more common in patients who have a family history. While patients can’t change their family history or stop aging, there are a few modifiable risk factors that can help lower the risk of developing macular degeneration, including healthy eating, smoking cessation and increasing physical activity.
Several studies have looked into the effects of physical exercise on the likelihood of developing macular degeneration and all demonstrate that being physically active lowers the risk of having macular degeneration. One study done in runners showed that the more a person runs, the lower their risk of having macular degeneration. Another study demonstrated that when adjusting for other known risk factors for the development of macular degeneration (such as smoking and age) that patients who were physically active had a 70% reduction in the risk of developing macular degeneration. Fortunately, it doesn’t take too much exercise for these eye benefits: studies showed as little as 15 minutes of physical activity daily was enough.
Exercise and glaucoma
Glaucoma is another common eye disease that can result in vision loss. Like macular degeneration, the likelihood of developing glaucoma increases with aging. Unlike macular degeneration, glaucoma effects the peripheral vision first which makes it difficult for patients to recognize the early symptoms of glaucoma. Glaucoma is often associated with high pressure in the eyes and the treatment of glaucoma is to lower eye pressure, which prevents worsening of the disease. And, as you may have already guessed, exercise has also been shown to have great advantages for glaucoma patients.
One group of researchers looked at the combined results of several papers about the impact of physical activity on glaucoma. They identified 20 different studies that all showed a decrease in eye pressure during and after exercise. The amount of exercise varied in the different studies, but there was benefit even from as little as five minutes of exercise. Exercise not only lowers eye pressure but it also slows the rate of vision loss in glaucoma patients. Most excitingly, these same studies demonstrated that the benefits of exercise were greatest for patients who weren’t already physically active.
Exercise and visual impairment
You may be thinking, “I’ve been to the eye doctor and I don’t have macular degeneration or glaucoma, so there is no need for me to exercise.” Well, think again. Turns out, the benefits of exercise aren’t just limited to certain eye diseases. The Beaver Dam Eye Study showed that physical activity was associated with a 60% reduction in the risk of developing visual impairment over the course of the study which was 20 years. Furthermore, people 82-88 years of age who exercised were more likely to have better visual acuity. So, exercise is just good for overall eye health.
Is all exercise the same?
While there are tremendous eye health benefits to physical exercise, there are some types of exercise that patients may want to avoid. In fact, certain exercises have been shown to increase eye pressure and can actually worsen vision. Specifically, exercises where the head is far below the waist, such as the yoga pose downward dog, can cause eye pressure to elevate. Small eye pressure increases have also been shown during weightlifting such as bench pressing. There is also research that shows headstands cause the eye pressure to double. This can result in vision problems and even vision loss especially for patients who have a diagnosis of glaucoma. So, not all exercise is created equal when it comes to eye benefits.
Other important tips
Always check with your primary care doctor before starting an exercise routine. Also check with your ophthalmologist as some eye disease can result in vision loss that might increase your risk of falls. In addition, some patients should avoid certain exercises that can increase eye pressure.
Once you are cleared for exercise, the more you do, the better the effects.
Remember that research has shown that the benefits of exercise are best for people who aren’t already physically active. So if you aren’t currently working out, these benefits are greatest for you!
Finally, to really see the most benefit, exercise should be paired with other good-for-you habits like eating healthy and not smoking.
About Dr. Ertel
Monica Ertel, MD, PhD, is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Colorado Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center. After completing medical and graduate school at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, she did an ophthalmology residency at Weill Cornell in New York City followed by a glaucoma fellowship at the University of Colorado. Dr. Ertel specializes in glaucoma and cataract surgery and currently sees patients in both Denver and Boulder, Colorado.