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The truth about eyerobics

Exercises for the eye muscles can't improve your sight: the vital muscles are out of our control, says
Fed up with being called four-eyes, despite those costly Calvin Klein specs? Tired of searching for your contacts on the toilet floor or (if you're female) blinking painfully as mascara seeps behind it? Worried about needing pebble lenses as middle age advances?

Glasses may have become a fashion accessory but most people who wear them (some 57 per cent of the population) would probably rather not. Contact lenses (worn by 6 per cent) can be tiresome. Now a "workout" for the eyes has been developed which, according to the PR blurb, can improve eyesight up to 30 per cent in 21 days. Called (a tad unoriginally) eyerobics, it involves learning to relax the muscles around the eyes, improving circulation and altering the eye's shape. Which may sound tempting, but can it be true?

Eyerobics may sound trendy but it is based on an older movement, Natural Vision Improvement, developed in the Twenties by a New York ophthalmologist, William E Bates. He argued that wearing glasses was rather like being a heroin addict: you needed stronger and stronger prescriptions to achieve the desired effect.Dr Bates also claimed that the prime cause of problem vision, whether long- or short-sightedness, was strain on the external muscles of the eye, leading to a distortion in shape or structure. By relaxing these muscles we can improve their circulation and prevent, or reverse, deterioration.

The exercises recommended by Dr Bates, and now being promoted on video (Eyerobics, pounds 10.99, on sale from 30 June) include sunning - shining a bright light on closed eyes; palming - covering the eyes with cupped palms; and swinging - standing in the middle of the room and turning back and forth at a 90-degree angle to re-educate the eye muscles and increase co ordination.

Dr Bates also recommended a spectacle-free period each day, to learn to see without the help of glasses or contact lenses.

His message has been taken up by a Canadian ophthalmologist and "behavioural vision therapist", Dr Robert-Michael Kaplan, who claims that eyerobics works as a preventive and as a curative measure, with weak sight being improved by between 25 and 75 per cent within six weeks.

If only it were that simple. The sad truth is that while these exercises may be beneficial in relaxing the eyes, there is no major scientific evidence that they can correct vision defects. One of the most common of these is myopia or short-sightedness, which normally begins in the early teens and is caused by the eye growing too long from front to back so that images at a distance are focused in front of, instead of on, the retina. Likewise with long-sightedness, which often occurs in small children, the eye is too short, although this normally corrects itself over time.

These are fundamental structural defects that most ophthalmologists say are unlikely to be radically altered by muscle exercises. The three muscles that control the eye are not under voluntary control: unlike the pectorals, for instance, there is no evidence that they can be strengthened; or that they can alter eye shape. Long-sightedness in middle age (presbyopia) is caused by the lens itself becoming weaker and can only be corrected by reading glasses.

Exercises may help reduce eye strain however, and some are used for specific eye disorders: difficulty focussing both eyes at once, for example. But for most of us, unfortunately, the only solution to short or long sight is a pair of spectacles (modern techniques mean even powerful lenses don't have to be that thick) or contact lenses (just go easy on the mascara).

Anyone worried about their vision should never put off going for a check- up, and should ensure they are also tested for glaucoma, an underdiagnosed condition in which raised pressure of the eye causes damage to the optic nerve. Left untreated, this can lead to blindnessn