How are your eyes? Your night vision? Your short-range sight?
Eye experts now predict that by 2050, half of the world’s population will suffer from myopia. Sixteen months of living, working and learning on screens has exacerbated our deteriorating eyesight. One poll found that 38% of Britons believed their eye sight had worsened as a result of the pandemic, leading to difficulty reading, migraines and poorer night vision.
It’s funny how we think of eyes (and teeth for that matter) as a separate part of us, maintained with the odd check-up at the opticians, or with a new pair of glasses. But eyes are vital organs, intimately connected with the rest of us. Indeed, eyes are now considered to be miniature brains, playing a crucial role in how we move, balance, sleep, smell. Which is to say – eyes are not just for seeing.
Our eyes didn’t evolve to stare at screens for long periods of time. It’s another reason I try to break up my working days with short walks. Our eyes – like the rest of us – benefit from the increased flow of blood that comes when we walk. As blood and oxygen shunt round our system they reach the optic nerve and the retina. They help reduce eye pressure (known as intraocular pressure) and a 2020 study found that walking cuts the risk of developing glaucoma.
But it’s not just the freshly circulating blood, oxygen and nutrients that help our eyes. When we walk outside, our vision changes.
We use tunnel vision to look at screens: a close, attentive mode of looking that, used to excess, causes our peripheral and distance vision to weaken. This matters – not only because we want good eyesight but because our peripheral vision is vital for our balance. Weak peripheral vision means we are less steady on our feet and more likely to fall over. We are also more likely to miss seeing things from the corner of our eye, which could be wildlife (life-enhancing) or a car (life-damaging).
Peripheral vision is important for seeing at night, and that includes night driving. As we age, our ability to see outside of our central field of view declines dramatically. If you’ve recently found night driving to be more difficult, that’s an indication that your peripheral vision is failing. And that you might want to spend a little more time walking outside. A 2019 study found that peripheral vision improved in walkers, regardless of whether they walked quickly or slowly. Standing produced no improvement. Our peripheral vision is enhanced by the constant flow of peripheral stimuli as we move through a landscape.
When we walk outside, our eyes behave differently. Looking at vistas, horizons and skylines is inherently relaxing – not only for our eyes but for our minds. Panoramic vision – particularly where we sweep our eyes horizontally along a landscape, seascape or skyscape – rests our nervous system, causing our stress hormones and blood pressure to fall. We relax, our breathing becomes deeper, our lungs work better. All this because of the way in which our eyes are scanning the horizon.
Taking regular walks with the right posture and gait – so that you’re looking out rather than at your feet or (God forbid) your phone – is vital for maintaining good eye sight and peripheral vision. You can do extra work on your peripheral vision by pausing on your walk, at a place you don’t know well, and making a mental note (or a real note) of everything to the far sides of your vision. Look ahead, don’t move your eyes, and just note what you can see to the sides of your body. Then look around and see what you missed. Keep trying this as you walk, but bear in mind that the locations must be new to you. Otherwise your brain steps in with remarkable alacrity!
Perhaps it’s no surprise that vision was very important to the women I’ve been following over the last few years (there’s still time to sign up for Sunday’s free webinar – or scroll to the bottom). Many were writers and artists – they needed to see in order to describe in words or to observe for their art. But they also needed to rest their eyes. Both writing and painting/drawing require a tight focal gaze. But neither carry the risks of being on a laptop all day. Studies show that when we write with a pen or paint with a brush our eyes naturally ‘zoom’ in and out, we pause and look out of the window, we blink, we ponder, we move around. You can’t do this while participating in on-screen meetings. And we seem to do less of it while clearing emails or shopping online. Not surprising perhaps, given that shopping sites don’t want us staring out of the window.
So. Walk for your eyes. Please.
If you want another reason for walking, how’s this… According to a report from Harvard Medical School that I received last week, walking out performs running when it comes to our health. Although running burns calories faster, a recent study of 33,060 runners and 15,045 walkers found that over time, brisk walking cuts our risk of heart disease by a greater amount than running. Our blood pressure responds in a similar manner, reducing by 7.2% for walkers, compared to a reduction of 4.2% for runners. Walking also means fewer injuries to joints, muscles and ligaments (due to the lesser force with which our foot strikes the ground).
The benefits get better if we hike – walking across rugged terrain enhances our balance and works our brain. This, combined with the hefty weight of walking boots, makes it more calorie-burning than any other type of walking. According to sports scientist, Lindsay Bottoms, ‘While brisk walking at a speed of around 5km/h (3.11mi/h) uses up to four times as much energy as sitting down and resting, hiking through fields and hills uses over five times.’ You can read her full piece on the physical and mental benefits of a wild hike here.
Which is not to knock running, of course. Running is wonderful if it’s your thing. I sometimes run myself and Susan loves running. But my research found that walking is the real catalyst to lifelong change. Besides, almost everyone can walk. And we can do it with friends and family. All our lives.
This is the last in my series of posts on the lesser known benefits of a simple walk. Susan and I will be discussing some of the other reasons to step out into nature (yes, there really are more!) on Sunday evening (or sign up to watch at a time of your choice).
You can sign up for the webinar at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-age-well-windswept-webinar-tickets-156965061725
I look forward to seeing you there!
PS if you missed my ten reasons for walking in nature (aka what I learned from history’s walking women) in this week’s Noon, you can catch up here.