The good news is that, as part of the brain, our eyes share in our brain’s innate adaptability. The not so great news is that modern demands on vision, especially our constant focus on close-up screens, is causing our eyes to make unhealthy adaptations. But there’s more good news—you can do something about that! Here’s how…

For millennia, humans spent most of their time focused on distance—such as scouting the horizon for dangerous predators, weather, food and shelter. Today, we spend our days primarily staring at objects only 18 inches (or less!) from our eyes—smartphones, tablets, iPads, e-books and the like. Constantly focusing on near objects and not looking off into the distance is a main cause of myopia (nearsightedness). And while wearing eyeglasses or contact lenses may seem like an easy solution, nearsightedness is about more than blurry distance vision.

Before the age of technology, nearsightedness was found primarily among professions that required a lot of reading, such as accountants, lawyers and college professors, and hardly ever found among, for instance, farmers. Now nearsightedness is reaching epidemic proportions. For example, in China and Japan up to 90% of students (teenagers and older) are nearsighted…while in parts of Africa and among other cultures that don’t spend extended periods of time doing close work far fewer people are nearsighted.

Why Eyeglasses Aren’t the Answer

Nearsightedness is associated with other ocular problems, such as higher risk for glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration…and increased likelihood of developing those conditions at an earlier age. There is evidence, in fact, that our near-focus habit is damaging our eye tissue and aging our eyes faster. Studies have linked computer overuse to glaucoma risk…while other research links exposure to blue light (the kind of light emitted by our electronic devices) to macular degeneration and cataracts.

Eyeglasses, contact lenses and surgery, including Lasik and PRK, can bring distant objects into focus, but these don’t address the other ocular problems. Technology is not going away, nor would we want it to…but following these 10 steps can keep your eyes healthier in a near-focused world…

1. Use smartphones the smart way. Smartphones strain eyes more than do computer screens or tablets. Smartphones are typically held closer to eyes and the font is smaller, both of which concentrate focus, making eye muscles have to work harder. Solution: Hold your phone as far away as you can to comfortably read the screen.

2. Get outdoors. Being outdoors changes what you’re looking at (that is, not a screen and something farther away), and also gives you a chance to exercise your peripheral vision. Tip: As you walk around, keep your eyes forward but maintain awareness of your whole visual field rather than focusing on a particular object. Do this effortlessly—don’t strain!

3. Take breaks. Rest your eyes periodically by letting them wander and rest on the horizon. Rule of thumb. For every 20 minutes of close work, rest two minutes…for every 30 minutes of close work, rest five minutes…and for every hour of close work, rest 10 minutes.

4. Blink, breathe…and smile! People unconsciously blink less and breathe more shallowly when looking at a screen. Your eyes need to blink to maintain a healthy tear film and protect against dry eye. Taking deep breaths keeps blood flowing so that sufficient oxygen gets to your eyes. Try this: Blink rapidly six times…then close your eyes and take two slow, deep breaths. Repeat four times. Easy way to prevent eyestrain: Make a small smile. When you smile you can’t put strain on your eye muscles.

5. Try rose water. Rose water is especially good for your eyes, as it has a relaxing effect and helps tired eyes feel more hydrated. Spray rose water around your head and eyes (close your eyes first).

6. Watch TV from a safe distance. Ideally, the distance between your eyes and the screen should be at least seven times the width of the screen. For a 40-inch screen, that would be about 23 feet away. If the ideal distance isn’t practical, even half that distance is still better than sitting two feet away from the screen.

7. Keep neck muscles loose. Tense muscles in the neck and shoulders can affect nerves at the back of the neck that lead to eye pain. Neck strain also can cause ocular headaches. What helps: Do neck rolls, put warm compresses on your neck…and avoid hunched postures!

8. Avoid extremes of light/dark contrast. In darkness, your pupils dilate to let more light into your eyes so you can see better…and in bright light, the pupils contract to keep light out. When you look at a bright screen against a dark background it gives the eyes a mixed message. Try to keep screen brightness at 50% for smartphones, tablets, laptops and monitors. Avoid looking at brightly lit screens against total darkness—such as watching TV with all the lights turned off.

9. Lounge “consciously.” Avoid slouching in bed or on the couch to watch TV, read or work on a laptop. Instead, sit up and have what you’re focusing on at a comfortable level for your eyes—ideally 20 degrees below eye level. Use a lap desk to elevate a laptop, book or tablet.

10. Look up! Looking up from near work and into the distance relaxes your eyes’ extraocular muscles (the muscles that move your eyes to the left, right, up and down) and ciliary muscles (which help the eyes to focus) and helps those muscles stay flexible.

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