DURING THE ALTERNATIVE 1970s, there was great enthusiasm for exercises that promised to fix faulty eyesight so that corrective lenses would no longer be necessary. While scientific evidence has not been forthcoming to support this promise, many of the exercises can provide welcome relief for eyes strained by too many hours at the computer or other close work like reading or sewing.
Exercises in the Bates Method, for example, can be easily incorporated in any daily activity. What’s important is that whenever your eyes feel strained, close them for a few seconds of rest. When walking outdoors, follow the line of curb or sidewalk with your eyes as far into the distance as you can and back again, keeping your eyes focused on whatever line you’re following. Or pick any distant outline–branches against the sky; the juncture of walls with the ceiling–and follow it closely with your eyes without moving your head; then close your eyes and try to picture the outline, then open your eyes and repeat the outlining.
Such routines, however, are unlikely to correct faulty vision, because that is caused by physical abnormalities. Both near- and far-sightedness result from “refractive errors,” created when your eyeball is too short or too long; astigmatisms occur if the cornea or lens has an irregular shape. The only true fix comes with LASIK surgery, which physically changes the shape of the cornea. (“Vision therapy,” by contrast, is a controversial “alternative” method involving both visual and mental exercises that are touted to improve how the brain interprets what it sees by correcting weaknesses in eye alignment and binocular vision.)
The most common recommendations for eye fatigue include blinking often and taking minutes-long breaks to look into the distance. For the latter, exercises like those from the Bates Method can ease the transition when you first look away from close-up work into the distance and your vision is blurry.
Another common eye relaxer is to follow a pencil held several inches in front of your face as you move it in to touch your nose and back out again. Also, roll your eyes clockwise and then counter-clockwise ten times each. My favorite is “palming:” Rub your hands together until your palms become warm, then use them to cover your eyes without applying pressure so that they are bathed in darkness and warmth.
Resting your eyes in darkness has the additional advantage of improving memory. In a recent study at the University of Edinburgh, subjects were asked to recall as many details as possible after hearing two stories. After hearing one, they were instructed to close their eyes for 10 minutes in a dark room; following another story (not always the same stories), they were distracted by a new task that involved spotting differences between pairs of images. Participants who closed their eyes remembered “many more details” of whichever story they heard, and the “striking memory boost persisted” a full week after the story-telling, according to study author Michaela Dewar. Dewar theorizes that when we first encounter new information, we are “just at a very early stage of memory formation;” further neural processes needed for the memory to be consolidated will occur automatically but only during “idle time.”
Makers of a recently-marketed eye exercise program, the “See Clearly Method,” at about $350 for a kit, have been charged with making false claims about its success in correcting vision, with an Iowa court in 2006 ordering payment into a restitution fund to compensate purchasers. The originator of this method, American Vision Institute, currently operates a website from which techniques of that method can be downloaded for $35.
But why pay when exercises like those in the Bates Method exercises are free, and a number of eye relaxation suggestions can be found elsewhere on the web.