Dry, Itchy Eyes? Study Says Exercise Could Help

Key Takeaways

  • Dry eyes can come from a number of causes, including computer usage, aging, hormone changes, and sedentary behavior.
  • Researchers found that even one session of exercise weekly can improve eye health, and that multiple sessions a week is even better.
  • Whether you have dry eyes or not, an annual vision exam can be helpful for catching health problems early.

When eyes are dry, they are more prone to itching, burning, and stinging sensations, as well as more serious problems like eye damage over time. Although products like eye drops may provide temporary relief, a longer-term fix may be integrating more physical activity into your schedule, according to a study in the journal Experimental Eye Research.

About the Study

Researchers divided 52 participants into two groups. They had one group participate in exercise sessions on a treadmill at least five times per week, while the other did a single session weekly.

Eye exams were performed before each session, as well as 5 minutes afterward to determine the effect of activity on tear film and secretion. Although participants exercising more often had greater benefits, all participants had a meaningful increase in tear quantity right after exercising.

Dry Eye Factors

Our tear film is produced when we blink, and has three layers—oil, water, and a compound called mucin—that combine to hydrate the surface of the eye in order to block irritants like dust.

When the tear film is compromised, the surface can develop dry spots where those irritants might get in and cause itching, according to study co-author Heinz Otchere, PhD(c), a researcher in vision science at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Heinz Otchere, PhD(c)

Dry eye is becoming increasingly common, especially with so much of our activity tied to screen usage.

— Heinz Otchere, PhD(c)

He says these spots can develop as a result of everyday tasks like computer usage, or with other factors like aging, hormone changes, sedentary behavior, some medications, and dehydration. Even factors like vitamin A deficiency, allergies, smoke exposure, humidity changes, and wind exposure can play a part.

“Dry eye is becoming increasingly common, especially with so much of our activity tied to screen usage,” says Otchere. “Also, the situation may be exacerbated when there’s more than one factor, such as reduced physical activity due to aging, which contributes significantly to dry eye disease.”

Why Exercise Helps

Although aerobic exercise primarily engages the movement of large muscle groups, it also has distinctive effects on your eyes, Otchere says. Previous research has shown that exercise increases blood circulation, as well as reduces intraocular pressure—which is a measure of fluid pressure inside the eye.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the eye has a jelly-like substance called vitreous humor filling the back part of the eye and a more watery liquid, called aqueous humor, near the front. In a healthy eye, a small amount of new aqueous humor is always entering the eye, while an equal amount is draining out. This equal flow represents a stable amount of pressure.

If pressure is less regulated or gets too high, it can damage the optic nerve and may reduce vision, although some people can have higher intraocular pressure without any damage.

Exercise also has other benefits on the eyes, Otchere adds, including lowering inflammation and increasing tear secretion, which both aid in reducing dry eye issues.

Avoiding Dry Eyes and More

If you have been exercising regularly and still struggle with dry, itchy eyes, the next step may be to get an eye exam, suggests Howard Krauss, MD, a neuro-ophthalmologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.   

Not only can this help pinpoint a reason for possible tear film issues, but an eye exam can actually help with diagnosing many systemic medical conditions, he says.

Howard Krauss, MD

There are many things that can be caught at an earlier stage thanks to a vision exam, and that includes eye diseases as well as other medical problems.

— Howard Krauss, MD

In other words, your eyes may be providing a warning sign that something more serious could be going on. For instance, an eye exam can help identify conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, autoimmune issues, and early vision loss, he says.

“There are many things that can be caught at an earlier stage thanks to a vision exam, and that includes eye diseases as well as other medical problems,” says Dr. Krauss. “Like any issue, early detection is key for the best treatment outcomes.”

What This Means For You

Regular physical activity may be a key way to maintain eye health and reduce eye dryness, a recent study suggests. But even if you do not have eye issues, making sure to get an annual vision check is important for catching any issues earlier. Plus, adding a little exercise to your daily routine can have multiple benefits. Talk to a healthcare provider before beginning a new exercise so that you can determine what is right for you.


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