Under (eye) pressure: Can exercise lower glaucoma risk?

by Mark L. Gonzalez, MD, Clinical Director, MedStar Eye Institute
December 29, 2017

As the Glaucoma Research Foundation notes, about three million Americans have glaucoma, but only about half of them know it. That’s because there may not be any symptoms to notice until the disease starts to cause noticeable vision loss. Glaucoma is caused by high eye pressure, so I’m always interested in ways to help patients lower this pressure and, therefore, lower their risk for the disease.

As it turns out, exercise can lower eye pressure, particularly for patients at severe risk for glaucoma or who have already been diagnosed with the condition. But how you exercise is as important as whether you exercise when it comes to this risk, because some forms of exercise actually can increase your eye pressure.

Exercises that can lower the risk of glaucoma

We’ve known for years of exercise’s role in maintaining a healthy weight, lowering the risk of heart disease and many other aspects of a healthy life. As it turns out, certain forms of exercise actually can lower your risk of developing glaucoma as well.

In particular, I’m talking about low-impact aerobic exercise. This kind of exercise involves moderately raising your heart rate for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Aerobic exercise can lower your blood pressure, as well as eye pressure, in addition to increasing the blood flow to the eyes. All of these factors can lower your risk of glaucoma and lower the risk of vision loss in people who have glaucoma in the long run. 

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There are many forms of aerobic exercise. Just a few examples include:

  • Going for a walk
  • Jogging on a treadmill or outside
  • Riding a bike (stationary or outdoor)
  • Swimming
  • Taking a Zumba class
  • Using an elliptical machine

The key is to find activities you enjoy and that you’ll stick with. This increases the likelihood that you’ll keep exercising over the long term and continue to get the benefits.

Exercises that can raise the risk of glaucoma

Not every form of exercise is good for the eyes, however. Exercise that involves straining or bearing down (anaerobic exercise) has the exact opposite effect. People who engage in anaerobic exercise may hold their breath temporarily while they’re straining, and this too can raise eye pressure and further increase the risk of developing glaucoma or worsening vision loss in people who have the disease.

Examples of anaerobic exercise can include:

  • Situps and pullups
  • Sprinting while running, biking or swimming
  • Weightlifting, particularly powerlifting and bench presses

Other types of exercise can raise the pressure inside the eyes as well, including inverted situps, crunches and squats. Many of these are done on an inversion table, which rotates the legs above the head, increasing eye pressure. Several yoga poses also incorporate inversion, such as:

  • Dolphin pose
  • Downward-facing dog pose
  • Forearm balance
  • Handstands, headstands and shoulderstands
  • Wall T-stands

Tips for reducing your eye pressure and glaucoma risk

For someone with only mild risk of glaucoma, a round of situps or the occasional yoga inversion isn’t something to be terribly concerned about. But for someone at higher risk or who’s been diagnosed with glaucoma, it’s worth taking some steps to reduce eye pressure and avoid unnecessary risks.

There are plenty of exercises available in many disciplines that avoid this increased risk. Particularly for those in yoga classes, I encourage people who have glaucoma to ask their instructors or fitness professionals about possible alternatives to inverted exercises.

Exercise is important across the board for developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. And while it might not be obvious, the eyes benefit from regular exercise just like every other part of the body. If you’re at risk for glaucoma, the right kind of exercise can be an important part of managing that risk over the long term.

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Category: Healthy Living     Tags: eye pressureglaucomahigh eye pressure