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Could exercising your eyes really help

Date: 30/03/2016

Much like grey hair and wrinkles, failing eyesight is often seen as an inevitable part of getting older. And that means we’ll all ultimately need reading glasses.

But is it really so inevitable? Gillian Snoxall doesn’t think so — she’s convinced you can halt the process in its tracks, simply by exercising your eyes.

The 78-year-old, from Wallingford in Oxfordshire, believes that her diligence in practising eye exercises is why she’s not had to use her reading glasses for the past 30 years.

The reason we need reading glasses is down to presbyopia, where the eye’s lens — a clear structure made of protein fibres and water — becomes stiff with age, making it harder to focus.

Looking for a solution to reading glasses? Author Gillian Snoxall says you can halt the process of failing sight in its tracks, simply by exercising your eyes

In order to focus on something close up, the lens needs to become more rounded, while to see things far away it becomes flatter. This process is known as accommodation.

When we’re young, the lens is flexible and changes shape easily; however this ability diminishes with age, which is where reading glasses come in.

Like most people, Gillian was in her mid-40s when she found herself struggling to read. ‘I was having to hold a book further and further away, until I eventually ran out of arm,’ explains Gillian, who at the time was living in Hong Kong with her family and working as secretary to the deputy chairman of HSBC.

She tried reading glasses ‘but found them a nuisance, so I started looking for alternatives’. This is when she came across the Bates method.

It was developed by a U.S. ophthalmologist, Dr William Horatio Bates, in the late 19th century, and is based on the theory that by exercising the eyes you learn to see better naturally, regardless of your specific sight problem.

One such technique is palming, where you cover your eyes with your palms to exclude the light; another involves rolling your eyes from side to side.

His method involves regularly practising eye exercises, as well as trying to do without your glasses.

Gillian signed up for an informal course of three sessions and says she’s never had to use reading glasses — or any glasses — since.

The Bates method is primarily aimed at relaxing the eyes, but Gillian’s approach is slightly different. She believes the exercises work by strengthening the eyes rather than relaxing them. ‘Exercise is good for every other part of the body; why shouldn’t it be good for the eyes?’

It sounds logical. But she admits that her own brother, an ophthalmologist, had no time for such techniques.

‘My brother just dismisses it, but he still needs reading glasses.’

Gillian has rarely needed to have her eyes tested over the years, until recently when she had surgery to treat cataracts — where the lenses become cloudy.

She maintains that while the cataracts made her vision misty they didn’t affect her ability to read. Indeed, when an ophthalmologist examined her before her operation, ‘she was amazed by my ability to read without glasses’.

But do the experts agree the eye exercises made the difference?

The short answer is that, while they’re sceptical that the techniques help with sight problems such as presbyopia, there may be ways that they do help your eyes.

With standard eyesight problems, such as long or short sightedness, it’s largely the shape of the eyeball that’s to blame.

Short-sightedness (myopia) usually occurs when the eyeballs are too long, so light doesn’t focus on the light-sensitive tissue (retina) at the back of the eye, but instead focuses in front of it. This makes distant objects appear blurred. With long-sightedness (or hyperopia), the opposite happens.

‘There’s no scientific evidence that exercises will make any difference to that,’ says Susan Blakeney, clinical adviser to the College of Optometrists.

Nor will working the eye muscles help presbyopia, either.

‘The lens is like an onion, with lots of layers that build up throughout life — it eventually becomes so stiff its curvature can’t change any more,’ explains David Elliott, a professor of clinical vision science at Bradford University.

No matter how strong the eye muscles, the lens just won’t change shape, adds Dr Blakeney.

Although this process begins from early childhood, people normally notice it at around the age of 45, with the closest distance at which you can focus dropping to around 30-40cm. Even naturally short- or long-sighted people develop presbyopia.

The experts have various explanations for the fact that Gillian and others seem to buck the physiological logic. It could be the placebo effect: where you think something works and so it does, explains Professor Elliott.
Another explanation is ‘blur adaptation’. With the Bates method you’re meant to avoid wearing glasses; as Professor Elliott points out, ‘there is evidence that if you take your glasses off your vision will improve because the brain is learning to interpret blur better’.

Indeed a study at the University of Bradford found that short-sighted people experienced improvements in their vision within four minutes of their corrected vision being deliberately ‘defocused’. However, this effect is thought to be short-term.

A related concept is perceptual learning, which is the idea that repeating a demanding visual task may trigger blur adaptation and be more permanent.

A study by Israeli and U.S. scientists, published in 2012 in the journal Scientific Reports, found that regularly carrying out a specially designed visual task improved the performance of people with presbyopia, and there are suggestions the benefit could be long-term. ‘But this needs to be tested in a proper randomised controlled trial,’ says Professor Elliott.

Our vision varies with the seasons, he adds. ‘With more sunlight you can read better, and it could be that someone who begins the exercises in winter may see an improvement by the summer, but not because of the exercises.’

Some people may also have a form of ‘visual compromise’, which explains why they don’t need reading glasses.

For instance, one eye may be naturally short-sighted and the other clearly focused in the distance, explains Bruce Allan, a consultant eye surgeon at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

‘They can still work well as a binocular pair. It’s what we aim for in laser eye surgery; it’s the next best thing to having a flexible natural lens.’

Our pupils (the hole in the eye through which light passes) get smaller with age, improving depth of focus — much like looking through a pinhole. Some people have particularly small pupils so never need reading glasses, adds Professor Elliott.

There is also a phenomenon called ‘second sight in later life’, explains Mr Allan — where the formation of cataracts causes the lens to become multifocal or myopic.

‘Paradoxically, that can allow someone to read without glasses again before the cataracts obscure their vision.’

Although exercises for the eye muscles may not fix presbyopia, they may help with other eyesight issues, such as convergence problems — difficulty making the eyes work together properly.

The effectiveness of natural techniques to avoid presbyopia is ‘difficult to swallow’, says Glen Jeffery, a professor of visual neuroscience at University College London, but adds: ‘There are many things about the eye that we still don’t understand.’

Furthermore, there are some suggestions in Gillian’s book that the experts warn against, such as not wearing sunglasses. But Gillian doesn’t need convincing: ‘The experts have every right to their view but I am living proof that this works.’