Thanks to the pandemic, I’m spending way more time inside than usual. Which, in turn, means I’m spending way more time staring at screens. Basically, within seconds of waking up, I’m looking at my phone, before transitioning to my laptop all day, only to return to my phone again at night, typically falling asleep with it in my hands.
It’s not been great for pretty much any aspect of my health, but my eyes in particular have begun to feel tired and achy.
In fairness, I can’t blame it all on mindless pandemic scrolling. Back in 2018, I was worried about it enough that I asked Christopher Quinn, president of the American Optometric Association, about how much damage staring at screens all day was doing to my eyes. What I was experiencing then — and seemingly again now — is a fairly cut-and-dry case of “digital eye strain,” or “computer vision syndrome.”
“When looking at a screen, the eyes tend to work harder, which causes them to strain during additional visual demands,” Quinn told me at the time. “The most common symptoms associated with digital eye strain include headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes and neck and shoulder pain.”
The thing is, none of this convinced me to sacrifice any of my precious screen time. And I’m certainly not gonna cut back at a time when screens are the only thing bringing anything remotely resembling joy to my life. So short of that, what else can I do to strengthen my eyes? Can I ease the pain by doing eyeball exercises like pencil push-ups? You know, like taking up running so I can continue to eat as much pizza as I want.
According to optometrists, kinda.
To start, eye exercises don’t necessarily build up your eye muscles like doing bicep curls. Rather, eye exercises are more like calisthenics. Staring at a screen all day is similar to running at the same pace for the same distance every day without exercising other muscle groups. Stretching or sit-ups won’t necessarily make you a faster runner, but they will help prevent wear and tear from overusing the same joints. Along those lines, eye exercises like pencil push-ups and the “figure 8” that force your eyes to change focus and direction can go a long way in improving your overall system of eye movement.
Pencil push-ups in particular “force the eyes to converge and work together,” explains Christopher Lievens, chief of internal clinics at Southern College of Optometry. Whereas staring at your laptop forces your eyes to maintain the same focus for hours on end, stopping to do some pencil push-ups “could be a rudimentary way to work on convergence,” he says.
However, unless you’ve been diagnosed with a physical condition that proves otherwise, your eye muscles are already incredibly strong and great at working together with the brain, which is why eye exercises are really only prescribed as physical therapy for injured or misaligned eyes. And even then, the evidence for pencil push-ups helping treat convergence insufficiency isn’t very promising.
As for pencil push-ups naturally improving or slowing the decline in your vision, Lievens is quick to shut that down, too. “There isn’t evidence to support their use for anything else,” he explains. “Nor will they somehow prevent visual decline.”
Essentially, pencil push-ups only seem to work because you’re taking a break from the screen, not because they’re doing anything all that special. Which is why, ever since eye strain first became a problem in Ancient Greece, eye doctors haven’t prescribed 1,000 pencil push-ups to overcome it, but instead, urged people to take frequent breaks, look at something else in the distance, and, you know, blink.
In short, eye exercises won’t beef up my virgin eye muscles into Chad Eyes that can stare at my computer all day without blinking. But much like doing lunges at every stoplight during my daily runs, they will prevent muscle strain from prolonged overuse. So, if you’ll excuse me, my health demands that I now vacantly stare into space for 20 minutes.