Some say the eyes are the window to the soul, but more likely, the eyes are the window to the body’s function. The theme as of late is that we are too comfortable in an environment that should challenge us to adapt and become stronger, yet we are given all the wonders of modern medicine and the western world and subsequently seek band-aids for those weaknesses. That latest band-aid is glasses. The bad news is, screens, lights, stress, and a lack of play are out to get us. The good news is, we can regain what we’ve lost though training.
A brief overview of how the eyes function is almost purely muscular. Common vision disorders are becoming more and more common (1) the longer we spend our childhood and daily adult life staring at screens and avoiding the outside in favor of a binge of Netflix or the latest Marshmello concert in Fortnite (yes that’s a thing). As we stare at a fixed distance and an artificial source of light, our eyes weaken much like sitting does to our bio-mechanical structure (2) . Let’s call this natural resting phase “eye posture.”
The three primary muscle groups affecting eye posture are the muscles of the face, the muscles of the lens, and the directional muscles of the eyes.
The muscles of the face become tight and hypersensitive through squinting and brow ruffling which in turn changes the shape of the eyes (3). Generally this results in an elongation of the eyeball, which is a compensation for a weakening lens (4). This negative adaptation is especially noticeable in cultures who have very little access to screens, and very little land topography in the near visual field to look at. They have some of the lowest rates of myopia and visual disorders, and are described as having the softest gazes(5).
The muscles that control the lens, or the ciliary muscles, make the lens thicker and thinner through contracting and relaxing. this is what allows us to focus much like a camera. With one visual distance making up most of our day, the lens is in a hyper-contracted state (6), which when the muscles fatigue, much like any other muscle, they tighten and lose their ability to fully relax (feel the upper traps and pecs of someone who works at a desk all day, you’ll see an observable example of this right away).
The Third muscle group, the extra-ocular (looking around) muscles, have a large role in dynamic vision but you only notice those training gains at higher levels of function such as sport. The primary dysfunction in the extra-ocular muscles comes about by the eyes not working in unison (7) due to slight tension abnormalities from a poor eye posture. Yogic style eye exercises are proven to help this sort of eye strain (8).
Finally, the last major factor in our biological selves to consider is the optic nerve. If you place yourself in total darkness and cover your eyes, you will notice that you never truly see black. This is from the hypersensitivity of the optic nerve.(9) This hypersensitivity had come about from the constant over-lit nature of the modern world. Try reading and walking around your blacked out home by candle light, for most of us it will be tough, but for most of the world that was the norm until Tesla and Edison made it abnormal. Decreasing this sensitivity though focused and low light settings is exponential in correcting the strain we feel on our eyes. (10)
So the question arises, what can we do about it?
Here are the 5 initial steps to take to begin retraining our vision:
Ditch The Band Aid
The first major factor in regaining vision is stop or limit the things that make you weak when you don’t need them. If you don’t need glasses for most tasks, don’t wear them. Wearing glasses all day when you don’t need them is like using a wheelchair for a slight ankle sprain. The only thing that’s going to suffer is your own body as the muscles of the eye get a “break” and become weak as they adapt to the easy correction. Physical Therapy has long since abandoned the “do nothing until it’s better” approach and so should you.
Lower Your Bad Light, Increase The Good
Everyone these days knows about blue light, but we also need to pay attention to the brightness of that light, as well as the light around us. Dim your monitors, install dimming tungsten colour lights or Philips hue lights that will do it automatically in your home. Keeping this low light level at night to help match the natural light of the environment will allow your optic nerve to take a break and challenge your visual acuity naturally. Also, sunning, and decreasing your use of sunglasses (avoiding cheap non UV coated ones all together) plays a huge role in healing the cornea. Contrary to popular belief, it is important for the eyes to get natural light to induce better cellular function and regeneration.
Make Those Eye Muscles Sweat
Exercising and training are two separate things, Exercising has no goal it is simply physical activity for the sake of physical activity, training is physical activity with the goal of improvement, correction, or optimization. Training, not exercising, is how we need to approach our eyes. Below I have outlined a daily exercise routine to train all major areas of visual impairment, giving anyone who is willing to put in the time to “look better” (get it) a tool to work with. These exercises are just a starting point, as there are many eye training methods that range from Traditional Chinese Medicine dating back thousands of years to advanced vision training protocols using the latest technologies to give athletes a visual edge.
Treat The Problems
The muscles of the face can be treated both at home and more efficiently through modalities like Functional Integrated Acupuncture. Exercises such as facial stretching and gaze softening (above) can not only assist FIT Therapies, but can start you off on the right foot if you do not have access to these modalities. The importance of treating the muscles and nerves of the face is the same as the body, when they become dysfunctional and sensitized, they can change not only the shape of our eyeballs (generally elongating them) but make it more difficult to coordinate directional focus between our two eyes, often one side will get “stuck” when looking towards a certain visual field.
Desensitize and Relax
Mindfulness and meditation does one thing well no matter how you feel about the practice, calms your nervous system. The specific version of “Eye meditation” or as the professionals call it, Palming, helps consciously desensitize and rest your optic nerve. Apart from this, mindfully practicing gaze softening when you find yourself squinting can aid in recovery of eye shape. Some active eye re-trainees use palming for up to two hours a day during periods of rapid retraining. For our cases, twice a day will do the trick.
Create Challenge in your environment
Most of us work at a computer, stare at a book, or love a good game of thrones marathon once in a while (lets not forget cellphones). So how to we combat these things? Put the screen further away, turn down (and even off) the auto brightness setting, don’t opt for the large text formatting, turn off the ambient lighting, and above all, look at something else every once and a while, preferable far away. Altering your environment to make it more visually diverse and challenging will aid in retraining your vision as you provide constant stimulus for your eyes. Strangely enough, more research is coming out showing the type of activity you do on screens has a major impact on visual acuity and tracking. For instance, those who stare at a television show vs video games generally have worse vision, and the latter actually have better vision both in acuity and tracking than those who do not play video games. Maybe picking up the newest copy of Call of Duty is going to be beneficial for your eyes too?
So why do we care when we have glasses and laser eye surgery? Well first off, laser eye is known to cause chronic dry eye and night vision problems (10) and is a band aid that’s just permanently there. On top of this, most sport performance is directly correlated to visual acuity(11), a quick search for exercises for enhancing already excellent sport vision is a favorite of research right now, while corrective exercise is deemed taboo and hard to find even though it has been traced in literature back to 1855 (12) if not earlier, with many traditional Chinese medicine practices involving eye exercise(13). If the performance and freedom from heavy frames and irritating contexts isn’t enough for you, then maybe the dollars and cents will hit home when you look at your next visual care bill.
Let us know if you have any questions, or what your experience is with eye exercises.
Isaac J.R. Olajos
Integrated Movement Training; Lead Practitioner & Program Director
RKin, RMT, FIA, Licensed Acupuncture Provider, BSc. Hon. Kinesiology McMaster University, Functional integrated Therapy, DNS Certified, Practitioner Blood Flow Restriction Training, Synergy Performance Taping