Can playing outside improve eyesight?

How big a role does sun light paly in strengthening young eyes?

As a kid, my mother was always shooing my brother and me outside to play. ‘Get outdoors and get some fresh air’ was more than a suggestion in the Underwood household—it was a parental mandate. The forced backyard time didn’t do much for my budding videogame skills, but it’s possible that it did wonders for my eyes.

Studies recently presented at a American Academy of Ophthalmology meeting suggests that kids who spend more time outdoors are less likely to suffer from myopia, also known as nearsightedness. Could playing outside really improve eyesight in kids?

For years outdoor play has been celebrated as a free and effective weapon in the war against childhood obesity, but it rarely gets much press as an eyesight enhancer. But according to a new analysis of eight eye health studies, which pools data on more than 10,400 children, there is a correlation between people who spend less time in the sun and nearsightedness.

The findings should be a red flag for parents because for the past three decades myopia cases have been rising among children. If a strong connection between a lack of sunlight and nearsightedness can be proven it may be helpful in reducing those numbers, and offer parents another reason to encourage more outdoor play.

“When I see a young child who is just developing myopia the first question parents ask is ‘how can we stop it,’” says David Hunter, MD, PhD, Ophthalmologist-in-Chief at Children’s Hospital Boston’s Department of Ophthalmology. “My suggestion usually is getting outside more might make a difference.”

[Watch a video of Dr. Hunter treating a vision condition known as Duane syndrome.]

David Hunter, MD, PhD

More work needs to be done before science can establish a concrete cause and effect relationship between sun exposure and stronger eyes, but the initial findings are pretty convincing. Research shows that as little as one extra hour of outdoor time per week could reduce the chance of myopia by as much two percent. And of the thousands of children studied, nearsighted kids spent three and a half hours less time outside per week than their peers with typical vision.

The studies also noted that today’s kids spend a lot of time doing near work, or the act of looking at objects close up, like handheld video games or computer screens. Because near work is more common today than in pervious generations many people think it too could be a contributing factor to nearsightedness, but at the moment only sunlight has been connected to a rise in myopia.

“We know that being outside more has positive effect on vision,” Hunter says. “Now we need to tease out why that is, figure out how much a factor near work or sunlight or fresh air play into the picture and let parents know how to best use that information.”

The people who will benefit most from that advice are younger children and their parents. Most vision problems tend to develop around the ages of 9 through 12, usually right around a child’s first growth spurt. So if being indoors too much really is a trigger of myopia, how a child spends his or her time in the preschool to preteen years is going to be important in helping prevent nearsightedness later in life.

In the meantime, Hunter says parents should encourage outdoor play whenever possible, because even if a stronger link between sun and eyesight is never discovered, increased outdoor time already has several other proven health benefits.

And for what it’s worth, it’s been decades since my mom made go outside to play, and I still don’t own a pair of glasses.

To learn more about the work Dr. Hunter does with young eyes, check out this video about the pediatric vision scanner he helped design, which can catch vision problems before the child is even old enough to talk. It uses laser technology to scan the eye and identify amblyopia (lazy eye) and strabismus (misaligned eyes) in young children using a non-invasive, rapid diagnostic test.