The Effects of Exercise on Vision Health: Glaucoma, Cataracts, AMD and Others

exercise for vision healthEye health is important for quality of life. Regular exercise has many significant benefits, including supporting healthy vision. This is especially true for seniors, who are most at risk for eye disease. While you cannot control all risk factors, sedentary behavior is a risk factor you CAN control. Avoiding tobacco and eating a healthy diet are also under your control. Genetics have an influence: a much higher percentage of African Americans have vision loss from glaucoma; non-Hispanic Whites top the charts in Age-Related Macular Degeneration vision loss1.

Exercise reduces oxidative stress, a significant factor in the development of eye disease. Research shows that exercise reduces the risk of onset of cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and retinal vein occlusion. Some eye diseases are associated with poor cardiovascular health, which exercise addresses directly.

Oxidative Stress

Research links many eye diseases to oxidative stress.2 3 4 Exercise reduced oxidative stress in the retinas of older mice.5


A large 12-year study found long-term, high physical activity was associated with decreased incidence of cataracts. The opposite was also found: sedentary subjects had a higher risk than average.6


For glaucoma patients, preventing any increase above normal in intraocular pressure (IOP) helps preserve vision. During exercise, there can be a temporary increase in IOP, depending on the type and duration. The jury is still out on the safest way for glaucoma patients to exercise and hydrate during exercise.7 Some yoga postures and certain kinds of weight lifting had a negative effect on glaucoma. 8 This should not stop a glaucoma patient from doing a reasonable and safe workout. You should consult your ophthalmologist, physician and possibly a personal trainer before starting.

A small study found that glaucoma patients who exercised regularly had a slower progression of the disease.9

A review of current research found that moderate aerobic exercise and some supplements could reduce intraocular pressure by 2 to 3 mmHg10

Another research study looked at aerobic exercise and glaucoma. Newly diagnosed open-angle glaucoma patients either exercised or took the drug Brimonidine. All took the drug Timolol. The exercise group did just about as well as the brimonidine group, and the treatment was better tolerated.11

Macular Degeneration

A large Australian study found an association between past vigorous exercise and reduced risk of developing macular degeneration in women.12

Ninety-four participants from the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) found it easy to stick with dietary modifications, AREDS supplementation (antioxidants with zinc) and exercise/weight reduction after the study ended.13 However, they had a very difficult time stopping smoking. Tobacco smoke has a significant impact on macular degeneration progression.

Patients with late ARMD exercised half as much as people without this eye disease, even when accounting for age.14 There was an apparent self-reinforcing cycle: those with late ARMD exercised less possibly because they could not easily navigate during exercise.

Diabetic Retinopathy

Americans who are physically active are at a lower risk for Type 2 diabetes. Therefore, they are also at a lower risk for diabetic retinopathy. A paper found an association between sedentary behavior and diabetic retinopathy.15

Both a healthy diet AND regular exercise had a statistically significant reduction in the risk of developing moderate-to-severe diabetic retinopathy. This effect was more than just the sum. Therefore, a healthy diet and regular exercise were significantly superior to just one (or none). 16

An animal study sought to induce metabolic syndrome in rats. Metabolic syndrome is the name for risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Rats were fed a high-sugar diet. They either exercised, or kept sedentary. The rats who exercised mostly resisted the effects of the high-sugar diet. The sedentary rats suffered much more metabolic syndrome. 17

Retinal Vein Occlusion

Cardiovascular disease, including hypertension, are strong risk factors for retinal vein occlusion. Affecting mostly people in their 60’s and 70’s, the victim suddenly loses part of their vision. This is caused by a blockage of the retinal vein by a tiny blood vessel. Partial or full recovery may be possible with treatment, but some permanent vision loss is common. Exercise is one major factor in preventing and managing cardiovascular disease. For example, a study found that a balanced exercise program reduced arterial stiffness, hypertension and blood markers for cardiovascular risk in senior women.18

Exercise Recommendations

WARNING: Do not undertake a physical exercise program without consulting with your eye doctor, physician and/or a personal fitness trainer. This is important for everyone, especially if you have any eye disease, and specifically glaucoma.

Physical activity is defined as anything that gets you to move and burn calories. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.19 Aim for 30 minutes per day, five days per week – or more. This can be done all at once in a half hour, or split into smaller segments (such as 10 minutes, three times per day). Those who need to lower their blood pressure or cholesterol levels should do at least 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise, 3 to 4 times per week. Examples include walking, biking, swimming, playing sports, dancing and climbing stairs. See also What’s Your Daily Dose of Exercise?

Additionally, adults should do weight training or resistance training to keep the muscles strong. Muscle grows more slowly in seniors, so they need to do light to moderate weight training only twice per week. Younger adults should work out with weights or a training circuit three times per week. Your muscles should feel tired after 12 to 15 reps of each exercise.

Stretching is also important. Without stretching, the muscles will grow short. Everyone, especially seniors, should not underestimate the value of stretching. Stretching before exercise has not been proven to be beneficial. Instead, start your workout at a low intensity and work up to full intensity (dynamic stretches). After finishing exercise, always stretch. You can hold static stretches or do dynamic stretches. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching all the major muscle groups for at least 60 seconds per position twice per week.

Fitness Memberships

The act of maintaining a fitness center membership will not automatically result in fitness. In addition to signing up and going through orientation, you need to show up at least 3 to 5 times per week. The typical fitness center business model counts on far more membership than regular attendees. This is one reason why gym memberships can be as low as $10/month. Therefore, your regular attendance gives you a great deal of value.

The cardio machines will be essential to your workout routine. Use the training circuit to strengthen muscles. Stretch on the mats and stretching machines. Most fitness centers have aerobic and yoga classes; cross fit; personal trainers; spin classes; martial arts; kickboxing; walking tracks; and challenging advanced classes and programs. Some have pools, which can provide a superb full body, low-impact workout. Swim goggles should be worn to protect the eyes from chlorinated water. Glaucoma patients should avoid head-down yoga positions and certain types of weight lifting, which can increase intraocular pressure.

Home Exercise Equipment

Home exercise machines are purchased with the best of intentions. Many are wonderful. However, one of the most common items that people want to get rid of is exercise equipment. They tend to be used for a few weeks or months; then the owners lose interest. Counter this by installing a television and video player, reading a book, or listening to the radio, music or podcasts.

Wearing a computerized fitness band can give you feedback and help you reach your goals. Just buying one will not make you fitter, but taking it seriously will.

An animal study revealed that aerobic exercise protected the retina from damaging light exposure. Regular exercise made the animals twice a resistant to retinal function and photoreceptor nuclei damage versus sedentary controls.20 The researchers experimented further and hypothesized that aerobic exercise had a neuroprotective effect on retinal damage. They believed it was related to brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) signaling.


A massive body of research supports the benefits of regular exercise. Specialized studies on eye disease and exercise overwhelming show its value in preventing the onset of eye diseases as well as supporting healthy vision for those living with eye disease. Exercise is a positive behavior that you can control. Whether you choose to walk, hike, ride bikes, take up a sport or take an aerobics class, regular exercise significantly contributes to vision health.

nutrients Up Next: Find out how often you need to exercise and download our free eye exercise ebook.

Editor’s Note: Natural Eye Care strives to keep you informed and up-to-date on the latest in medical advances for vision and eye-related conditions. We offer the best interventions in nutrition and holistic medicine to support those with an eye disease, or at risk of losing their vision. See our index of eye conditions, eye vitamin and supplement recommendations, key research and eye disease prevention protocol.

  2. November 2010 Volume 177, Issue 5, Pages 2278–2289. Evidence of Oxidative Stress in the Pathogenesis of Fuchs Endothelial Corneal Dystrophy. Ula V. Jurkunas et. al. DOI:
  3. “Oxidative damage to lens in culture: reversibility by pyruvate and ethyl pyruvate”, Varma, et al, Ophthalmologica, 2008; 222 (3):194-198.
  4. Tan, et al, Antioxidant nutrient intake and the long-term incidence of age-related cataract: the Blue Mountains Eye Study, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 87, No. 6, 1899-1905, June 2008.
  5. Int J Mol Sci. 2015 Sep 2;16(9):21008-20. doi: 10.3390/ijms160921008. Treadmill Exercise Attenuates Retinal Oxidative Stress in Naturally-Aged Mice: An Immunohistochemical Study. Kim CS et. al.
  6. Ophthalmology. 2015 Feb;122(2):274-80. doi: 10.1016/j.ophtha.2014.08.023. Epub 2014 Sep 27.

    Long-term physical activity and risk of age-related cataract: a population-based prospective study of male and female cohorts. Zheng Selin J et. al.

  7. J Optom. 2016 Jul-Sep;9(3):139-47. doi: 10.1016/j.optom.2015.12.001. Epub 2016 Jan 12. Intraocular pressure and glaucoma: Is physical exercise beneficial or a risk? by McMonnies CW1.
  8. Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol. 2016 Oct 14. Epub ahead of print. “Modifiable factors in the management of glaucoma: a systematic review of current evidence.” Hecht I et. al.
  9. BMC Ophthalmol. 2016 Aug 23;16(1):147. doi: 10.1186/s12886-016-0326-x. The relationship between self-reported habitual exercise and visual field defect progression: a retrospective cohort study. By Yokota S. et. al.
  10. Graefes Arch Clin Exp Ophthalmol. 2016 Oct 14. Epub ahead of print. “Modifiable factors in the management of glaucoma: a systematic review of current evidence.” Hecht I et. al.
  11. Value in Health. November 2015, Volume 18, Issue 7, Page A415 “A Prospective Study to Compare Safety and Efficacy of Various Anti-Glaucoma Agents and Evaluate the Effect of Aerobic Exercise on Intra-Ocular Pressure in Newly Diagnosed Primary Open Angle Glaucoma Patients in a Tertiary Care Hospital.” A Agrawal et. al.
  12. Br J Ophthalmol. 2016 Oct;100(10):1353-8. doi: 10.1136/bjophthalmol-2015-307663. Epub 2016 Jan 19. “Past physical activity and age-related macular degeneration: the Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study.” by McGuinness MB
  13. Can J Ophthalmol. 2015 Jun;50 Suppl 1:S23-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jcjo.2015.04.005. Reprint of: Survey of patients with age-related macular degeneration: knowledge and adherence to recommendations. Shah SU et. al.
  14. PLoS One. 2015 May 1;10(5):e0125394. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0125394. eCollection 2015. “Age-Related Macular Degeneration Is Associated with Less Physical Activity among US Adults: Cross-Sectional Study.” by Loprinzi PD
  15. “Association of Accelerometer-Assessed Sedentary Behavior With Diabetic Retinopathy in the United States.” Paul D. Loprinzi et. al. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2016;134(10):1197-1198. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2016.2400
  16. Prev Med Rep. 2015 Jul 18;2:591-4. doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2015.07.002. eCollection 2015. “Concurrent healthy behavior adoption and diabetic retinopathy in the United States.” Loprinzi PD et. al.
  17. Braz J Med Biol Res. 2015 Apr;48(4):332-8. doi: 10.1590/1414-431X20144217. Epub 2015 Feb 13. Exercise training prevents increased intraocular pressure and sympathetic vascular modulation in an experimental model of metabolic syndrome. Castro EF et. al.
  18. Menopause. 2016 Oct 24. Combined exercise reduces arterial stiffness, blood pressure, and blood markers for cardiovascular risk in postmenopausal women with hypertension. Son WM at al.
  20. J Neurosci. 2014 Feb 12;34(7):2406-12. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2062-13.2014. “Aerobic exercise protects retinal function and structure from light-induced retinal degeneration.” Lawson EC et. al.