Doctors break down the science-backed benefits of eye exercises.
As part of my yoga practice, I do a series of eye movements called netra vyayamam — a.k.a. eye yoga. It’s basically like a calisthenics routine for your eye muscles and it feels amazing. Honestly, it feels incredible, as if I’ve cleaned my actual eyeballs. Everything seems a little crisper, my face feels more relaxed, and I feel relief from extended screen-time induced eye fatigue. And these types of exercises are all over social media, touted as a way to help with the aforementioned fatigue but also potentially improve your vision. But we know better than to believe everything we hear, so I asked eye doctors to explain the actual benefits of eye fitness — if any at all are backed by science.
Do eye exercises improve your vision?
“There are benefits to doing eye exercises, but you should go in with the right expectations,” says Danielle Richardson, a Los Angeles-based optometrist and medical consultant to Johnson & Johnson Vision. Richardson is also a yoga teacher and she’s familiar with netra vyayamam and the notion that eye yoga can improve vision. Unfortunately, that notion seems to be more magical thinking than anything else. “There’s very little credible scientific evidence that eye exercises can improve vision,” says Richardson.
Most experts seem to agree with Richardson that eye exercises aren't a solution for vision problems, so if you’re hoping for an eye routine that will make your glasses obsolete, my condolences. That said, Richardson says that eye exercises can help with eye strain, discomfort, and screen fatigue. “Eye exercises can help with the issues commonly associated with staring at a computer screen all day, including headaches and dry eyes,” she says.
“Our eyes do a lot for us every day, and it’s easy to take that for granted,” says Richardson. Just like every other part of your body and mind, your eyes require care. “We're constantly using digital devices, reading and consuming so much in 24 hours that it's normal for our eyes to suffer from strain and fatigue,” says Richardson. “Eye exercises have some specific benefits, though they likely will not be a catch-all for addressing your eyes’ health.” So you can think of eye exercises the way you think of any other kind of exercise — as part of your health care regimen.
What are the real benefits of eye exercises?
Richardson doesn’t seem willing to make that kind of sweeping statement, but for people who are experiencing eye health issues, there’s a whole branch of optometry devoted to teaching you how to exercise their eyes called Vision Therapy. In Vision Therapy, eye exercises are prescribed on an individual basis according to your needs, Richardson explains.”Vision Therapy is typically indicated for those with issues with their eye muscle movements or focusing ability,” Richardson says. A lot of the research that suggests that eye exercise can improve vision uses Vision Therapy in a clinical setting.
How do eye exercises help with fatigue?
“There is some overlap between eye yoga exercises and Vision Therapy eye exercises as both aim to improve muscular function,” Richardson says. There are a lot of online eye exercise routines, but Richardson doesn’t seem sure that folks should DIY their eye health. “Before beginning any exercise routine, it is always recommended you consult with a doctor and eye exercises are no exception,” Richardson says.”Eye exercises target ocular convergence, divergence, and accommodation aka focusing ability so you'll want to make sure you are targeting the right muscles based on your unique visual system and visual demands.”
So yes, eye exercise can be helpful, but check in with your doctor. That being said, Richardson says the risks of eye exercise are minimal — but they do exist. If you’re anxious to improve your eye health in a way that is safe and evidence-based, Richardson says the 20/20/20 rule is law — and it’s easy “For every 20 minutes spent staring at a screen, you should try to look away at something that is 20 feet away from you for a total of 20 seconds,” Richardson says.
Eye health is especially important right now, Richardson says. A lot of us have basically spent two years glued to our screens. “As a result of working and attending school virtually, eye doctors have noticed an increase in patients mentioning their eyesight changing,” Richardson says. Recent studies show that more and more people are experiencing eye issues as a result of the pandemic. “It’s a serious issue,” says Richardson.
So, while eye exercises may give you some temporary relief from the strain modern life puts on your eyes, they won’t “cure” anything and experts think that there may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to eye fitness. Does that mean I’m going to stop doing eye yoga? Absolutely not. It feels good, and right now, I need that small relief.