The eyes are the windows to the soul, and they’re also the portal through which most of us perceive our daily lives.
Over the last few decades, however, we increasingly view our lives through a second lens: the screen. Screens can be overly stimulating, even physiologically stressful, and they emit non-natural forms of light. Our eyes evolutionarily weren’t equipped to deal with the kind of 24/7 stimulation they now receive, which has resulted in a lot of eye problems in modernity.
Technology isn’t going anywhere, and, hopefully, neither is our eyesight. But there are a few simple things we can do to amp up our ocular health and reduce the strain and aches that are often associated with staring at a screen, whether it’s your phone or your computer, and whether it’s for business or pleasure.
First, let’s talk about why we need to focus on this—even if we’re gifted with 20/20 vision and are migraine-free.
As we age, the muscles in our eyes deteriorate but, even before then, eye strain is still a danger. Eye strain is an umbrella term for the discomfort caused by staring at the same thing for long periods of time—no different from the discomfort we can experience after extended bouts of standing or sitting. However, it’s often not as obvious to us, as eye strain can result from physiological issues such as slight squinting due to blurred vision and light-damaged retinas, as well as other subtle effects.
Screens in particular tire out our eyes. This is due in part to the fact that we naturally tend to blink less when we’re staring at our tech, which dries our eyes out. Additionally, the blue light emitted from screens damages our retinas over the long term. Over time, seeing and reading both on- and off-screen will become more difficult, which will force many of us to work harder and damage our eyes more. The cycle continues until our vision is acutely impaired or we swear off reading and other activities requiring fine vision altogether.
Neither sounds like a great option.
What can we do about it?
As with many now-small, later-big issues, there is a maddeningly simple battery of exercises and fixes we can implement now to protect our future eyesight.
Take a quick break
First up: Pop quiz! Are you reading this on a screen? (Yes. Yes, you are.) Take five seconds and close your eyes. Notice how your forehead relaxes downwards. Then, open your eyes, and find something about twenty or more feet away to gaze at. Bonus points if it’s something natural, like a tree or the sky. Stare away for twenty seconds.
Congratulations! You just completed the eye equivalent of a full-body stretch. Screens aside, we spend a lot of our time looking at things that are very close to us and that requires the muscles in our eyes to be tensed up in a very specific way. (Imagine being required to hold your arms above your head for more than a minute, and you’ll get the idea.) We’re very used to this, but it’s not good for our eyes. Letting the eyes stretch out and relax by simply changing up the depth at which we are perceiving the world will make a world of difference.
Filter out blue light
Look for ways to intervene between your eyes and the omnipresence of blue light in an increasingly tech-oriented world. This could be as simple as reducing or avoiding screen time, but that’s not always possible.
A plethora of apps now exist on the market to help tint screens more warmly and healthily. Apple devices now come equipped with Night Shift, a setting which, if enabled, warms up the light coming to your device based on your sleep hours. Several developers have created similar apps and filters for Android devices. (I have mine enabled 24/7 because I have weak eyes, and it’s made a huge difference.) A free program called f.lux offers customizable light tints such as “Himalayan Salt Lamp” and “Emerald City” if you’d like to shake things up. (I downloaded f.lux on my work PC—the one I spend eight hours a day staring at—and wondered where my afternoon headache went.)
Another great option for filtering blue light is wearing glasses that do the job for us. Just a few years ago, the only easily available blue-light-blocking glasses were gigantic fluorescent orange goggles. (I have a pair of those, and they totally work.) But now eyewear retailers are offering more and more options for attractive (read: wearable in public) blue light blockers, from more economical choices to pricier ones. Last year, Warby Parker announced they’re offering special blue light-blocking coatings for prescription lenses. This issue and its solution are really stepping into the light (or out of it, as it were)—we just have to know where to look.
Exercise your eyes
Because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it’s time to get proactive. Let’s talk about eye exercises. The eye is supported by muscles, and just like any of the other muscles in your body, you can exercise them.
While the jury is still out on whether, in what way, and to what extent eye exercises are effective, they're so easy to do, it can't hurt to incorporate them into your routine. Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and author, emphasizes that our bodies need to move in the ways they were made to move, or we’ll lose the ability to make our bodies do what we need them to do. According to her, our eyes are no different: most of us aren’t using critical long-range muscles in our eyes, and this contributes to a lot of the tension we experience.
Next time you’re feeling like your eyes are tired, here are a few exercises you could try.
The Bates Method of improving eyesight has been around for almost one hundred years and is centered around the idea that stressed eyes don’t see very well. Dr. William Bates came up with a whole regimen of relaxing stretches and exercises for our eyes—which people are still practicing today.
More recently, vision specialist Dr. Sam Berne came up with some fun eye exercises which target different facets of visual strength. My favorites are his “Thumb Game,” which helps with focus and convergence, and “Yin Yang Game,” which can help stimulate and expand peripheral vision.
Finally, just make sure that the next time you go for a walk, you’re taking your eyes for a walk as well. Instead of focusing on your feet or the storefronts five feet away, keep your head up. Look ahead—at treetops or at the end of the street. Your eyes will thank you for this simple habit!
Ultimately, like any other area of our physical wellness, good eye health is something that we can do our best to preserve with small, actionable habits—and in doing so, give ourselves a better chance at a lifetime of good sight.
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