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Can you really train your eyes to see better?

A new video claims that you can improve your sight with `eyerobics'. Colette Harris takes a beady look
If you suffer from long, short or failing sight, you're probably resigned to either wearing glasses or contact lenses or saving up for laser surgery. Improving your sight by exercising your eyes might seem pretty implausible. But a number of ophthalmologists believe that an exercise programme based on something called the Bates Method may keep eyes in better shape. A new video, chucklingly entitled Eyerobics, and endorsed by Dr Robert-Michael Kaplan of Pacific University's College of Optometry in Portland, Oregon, provides a guide to the technique.

Dr William Bates was a New York ophthalmologist who decided more than 80 years ago that if eyes respond to glasses by getting weaker, or lazier, the muscles around the eyes were the key factor in poor vision. He found that an enormous amount of tension builds up in and around the eyes, causing problems with their function. So, the Bates Method is about relaxing those muscles in order to restore good circulation, which helps to improve the eyes' efficiency, which then leads to less stressed usage of the eye and therefore to a more relaxed muscle. The three fundamental exercises from the Bates method are "sunning", which involves shining a bright light on closed eyes; "palming", which is covering the eyes with cupped hands, resting the palm on the top of the cheekbones; and "the long standing swing", which is keeping your eyes focused as you turn back and forth from left to right.

Conditions such as astigmatism, long and short-sightedness, as well as weakening sight, have been improved and sometimes cured by the Bates method, and clinical trials by Dr Kaplan appear to prove its effectiveness. British eye specialists, however, are unconvinced. Dr David Gartrey, ophthalmic consultant at Moorfields Eye Hospital, argues "The Bates Method has no scientific basis whatsoever. No studies looking at patients before and during treatment, as well as after, have been carried out. Until results from such a study are published, it's nonsense."

Some of the principles of the Bates Method are already accepted by mainstream eye care. The idea that the eyes need the same care and stress relief as the rest of the body has been developed in various ways, not least as a part of a discipline called behavioural optometry, which is fast gaining popularity in the UK. In this system, vision is considered to be an inseparable part of the whole human being, and therefore easily affected by behaviour, our environment, stress and the mental connection between eyes and brain.

"Vision links in with the other senses," says behavioural optometrist Paul Adler. "Balance, spatial perception, mismatches in seeing and hearing can all lead to confusion and mixed messages between the eyes and brain. We use visual therapy to fix problems such as inadequate focusing, for instance in squints. I recently cured one little chap who had already had two operations for a squint and was on the waiting list for a third. We found his main problem was stress and when we worked with that and his eye co-ordination he was better in six weeks."

You can also improve your sight by popping a food supplement designed for eyes. They include FSC Lutein Eye Formula with zinc and marigold extract (pounds 8.99/30 capsules, for stockists call 01204 573298), Bilberry gingko eyebright and lutein complex from Solgar (pounds 18.49 for 60 capsules, for stockists call 01442 890355) and Ocuvite with antioxidants A, C, E and zinc (pounds 8/60 tablets, for stockists and mail order call 01329 224124). Meanwhile, pump those irises.

For more details, contact the Secretary of the British Society of Behavioural Optometrists, Lyn Price, on 01277 624916. National Eye Week starts tomorrow. For the helpline, call 0891 633491.