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Most eye problems are avoidable — especially if you make a few simple changes to your daily routine.
You make dozens of healthy choices every day. You buckle your seatbelt. Track your steps. Choose a side salad over fries.
But when was the last time you thought about doing something good for your eyes, like booking an eye exam?
Good vision is something most of us take for granted, notes Stephanie Hubbard, O.D., an optometrist with Crystal Clear Eye Associates located inside America's Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Sarasota, Fla. “Many eye problems are preventable, but most of us aren't thinking long term when we go about our days," she says.
In fact, most of us have habits that get in the way of good long-term vision. Here's how to do right by your eyes.
1. Roll Back Screen Time
It’s this simple: The more time you spend staring at your smartphone or computer, the more likely you are to suffer from eye strain, tired eyes, or dry eyes.
When we lock our visual system in on a close task for long stretches of time, our eye health pays a price, says Memphis-based optometrist Mollie Veteto, O.D., who is with Nashville Regional Eye Care inside America's Best.
The solution: Embrace the 20/20/20 rule. Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen and focus on an object at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
For kids, the solution is simpler—and old school. Send them outside to play! A 2012 study from the University of Cambridge shows that children who get plenty of outdoor time reduce their risk of developing nearsightedness.
Finally, keep your digital devices out of the bedroom. Research shows that nighttime exposure to blue light from, for example, a smartphone or tablet can cause sleep problems and potential eye health issues, such as macular degeneration.
2. Prioritize Self-Care
If you don’t diffuse stress effectively, your eyes will pay.
Anxiety sends adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones racing through your body, which puts pressure on your optic nerves. Chronic stress can inflame and ultimately damage those nerves, hurting your vision.
During tense times, you might notice eye irritation or even blurred vision. But if your stress is left unchecked, it can eventually result in something as serious as glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness.
Solution: Set aside time every day to do something for yourself—whatever brings you joy. Watch TV, read a book, phone a friend, go for a walk.
Exercise, particularly cardio and yoga, is a proven stress reliever. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, but studies have found that as little as 5 minutes of aerobic exercise (running, jumping jacks, treadmill) has stress-busting effects.
And speaking of exercise …
3. Stay Active
Research from the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that moderately active adults are about 25 percent less likely to develop glaucoma, compared to their sedentary peers.
Plus, many eye diseases are linked to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions, which regular exercise can help prevent.
Thirty minutes of exercise a day is a good target, but all movement is good for you. On your busiest days, embrace the concept of NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
This is just a fancy way of describing less conscious forms of exercise, such as taking the stairs, parking far away from store entrances, or standing and pacing—instead of sitting—whenever you’re on the phone.
A Mayo Clinic study found that lean people expend 350 more calories per day than overweight people do, via NEAT.
4. Turn in Early
Lack of sleep (aim for seven to nine hours a night) puts you at greater risk of blurry vision, dry eyes, twitching, and eye pain.
That’s because shut-eye gives your eyes a chance to flush out irritants and pump up their natural lubrication, explains Laurie Lesser, O.D., an area doctor with South Florida Regional Eye Associates inside America's Best. Meanwhile, your body repairs damaged blood vessels, including those in your eyes.
Eye strain and twitching won’t lead to any serious vision problems, she says, but they’re definitely bothersome and are a sure sign that you could use more sleep. What’s more, if you’re tired during the day, you may start rubbing your eyes. The occasional eye rub is nothing to worry about, but frequent rubbing can weaken or distort the cornea.
Instead of rubbing, reach for eye drops to bring some temporary relief. Better yet, hit the hay earlier to ensure you’re well rested.
5. Rock Those Shades
Your eyelids are no match for the sun’s harmful rays. That’s why wearing sunglasses is one of the easiest ways to protect your peepers from sun-related eye damage.
Over time, the same ultraviolet rays that are known to damage skin (UVA rays) or increase your risk of developing skin cancer (UVB rays) can also contribute to vision loss, cataracts, eye growths, and eye cancers.
Choose a pair of sunglasses that block 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays. And for maximum protection, wear them year-round—even on cloudy days, when UV rays still manage to poke through.
6. Lather Up
You know where your hands have been, and you don’t want those germs in your eyes, where they can cause eye infections.
The mucous membranes that help keep your eyes moist are like small germ receptacles, says optometrist David Cohen, O.D., of Ocular Management Services located inside America's Best in Charlotte, N.C.: “Any bacteria on your hands when you rub your eyes has a good chance of getting in them.”
Pink eye (also known as conjunctivitis) is common during cold season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It often clears up on its own, but sometimes a round of antibiotics is required to treat the more intense symptoms—pain, itching, redness, swelling, and sticky discharge—which can keep you at home for a few days. Staph infections, which have similar symptoms, can also reach the eye and temporarily effect your vision.
Be especially vigilant about handwashing if you wear contact lenses, including daily disposables. The CDC notes that contact lens wearers are generally more prone to eye infections, which makes sense given how often you’re touching your eyes (see no. 8, below).
7. Go to Bed with a Clean Face
Overnight, as you roll around, mascara and eye makeup can flake off and wiggle into your eyes, causing irritation or an infection. So make sure you wash your face before bed.
Other makeup no-nos: Applying eyeliner inside the lash line. Also, don’t hang on to eye makeup for too long—bacteria from your skin and eyelashes can make its way into the container, where it can grow easily and can lead to conjunctivitis. As a general rule, replace eye makeup every three months.
8. Double Down on Good Contact Lens Care
Every year, nearly 1 million eye infections are reported, according to the CDC—and many of them are related to the mishandling of contact lenses. Problems can range from an annoying bout of pink eye to potentially blinding eye infections like keratitis, which is caused by a bacteria that flourishes in moist environments.
A quick refresher: Take your lenses out before bed and before you shower, swim, or take a dip in a hot tub, and use fresh solution every time you remove them. Even if you’re a stickler about good lens care, bacteria can and does build up. That’s why you should replace your case every three months, and always change your contact lenses according to the prescribed replacement schedule.