Monday, January 18, 2010

Eye Health: How Fast can You Switch Focus?

Our eyes are moved by a set of 6 muscles. Intriguingly, we rarely work these muscles with any of the attention we give to our other more obvious prime movers like hips or arms; how we work them is usually only in a very restricted range of motion and action. And like any other tissues in the body, use 'em or lose 'em.

There are huge benefits from actually practicing eye movement, speed of focal accommodation being one of them. How quickly can we shift from where we're looking now to refocus where the next target is?

Tech Tip of the day: Near Far Eye Drills. The idea of this simple drill is to work the muscles of the eye that help focus. The drill is taught as part of a suite of eye health movement drills in z-health (what's that?) on both the Neural Warm Up I and the S-Phase Complete Athlete, Volume 1 DVDs (reviewed here).

In the following excerpt from the S-Phase DVD, Master Z-Health Trainer and Sr RKC Sara Cheatham demos how the drill works: one hand far, one hand near; switch focus between hands as quickly as possible for reps; switch hands.

The goal of the drill is not just to move our eyes from the near hand to the far hand, but to move our eyes to the other object and FOCUS on that object, so it's important to make sure that our hands are set at distances relative to our eyes that will require that re-focus/acquisition. By practicing this simple drill, we can improve the speed of acquisition. We likewise help keep our eye muscles in better responsive physical shape.

Start off with this drill slowly: when we're not used to working our eyes, we can get a headache pretty quickly. Also watch for signs of stress: shoulders hunching up, face getting tight. A few deep breaths in through the nose, out slowly through pursed lips, and we're likely good to go again.

The benefits are huge in a sport context of speedy target acquisition, but in regular life, practicing responsiveness can be a life saver, too. The eyes are our primary sensory system - before vestibular, before proprioception. The more quickly we can detect something with practiced efficiency, the less stress in an actual event, the more skill brought to the action requiring a response.

Another quick tip? Try using your eyes to see something before turning your head - but again, go slowly. This can be fatiguing quickly when unaccustomed to the motion. Eye rather than head movement has lots of neurological benefits too, described in this post on the arthrokinetic reflex. Doing so also simply works the muscles of the eye in a more complete range of motion, enhancing perfipheral view.

More Eye Work for more kinds of Performance Strength. There are many other drills that can be practiced with the eyes that have a range of benefits including amazingly strength and cognition. Many of these eye drills, based in sports vision and behavioural optometry, are on the Nerual Warm Up 1 and 2, the S-Phase Video, and many are taught at the Elite Performance Workshop. More focal accomodation drills are on the NWU vids; more of the cognition/performance drills are on S-phase. Many can be practiced seated at a desk with just your hands or with a pencil, so they're easy to do anywhere. The point is to know 'em, love 'em and do them.

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Kris said...

My Z health instructor, Jon Barber, did the eye and coordination tests on me quite a while back.

They were really interesting, and I tested quite well on them surprisingly. He was impressed that someone who sits at a desk all day and doesn't play any sports got such good numbers.

I don't know why I tested so well, but I'm glad! I do try and do some eye exercises at work because staring at screen isn't good for them!

Unknown said...

May I just make a distinction between the extenal muscles that move the orbit and help direct the eye to the most favourable point to pass light to the fovea, (the area of the macula which has the highest resolution), and the internal ciliary muscles that actually change the shape of the lens and are the muscles provide the focus for the image.

Once over 40-45 years of age the lens hardens to the point that the ciliary muscles cannot change the shape easily, if at all.

Nonetheless, I wonder if doing these exercises early enough will slow down the process in later years? Any research to that effect?

I shall give them a try anyway to see if I can make any objective difference to my aging eyes.

dr. m.c. said...

Andrew, thanks for the notes, and you make great points.

I don't know about age/lens hardening. I'd be inclined to check with an optometrist/opthomologist who is also a vision behaviouralist

When i asked such a doc about folks going "off warranty" (over 40) her view was that yes one could work on improving distance vision after this, but that it may have side effects like now increasing the need for glasses when reading.

THere are also loads of other vision drills such as peripheral vision work, tempo work, convergence, and so on that have ongoing cognitive benefits that you might find interesting. There are some good "sports vision" books that go through these.

Hope that helps and thanks for the question.

all the best,

Unknown said...

Thanks, Mc,

I do agree about the general drills and specifically the one about convergence. I think this is where most people have an issues. Many thanks for the update.

Where the lens stiffening/hardening thing starts to bite is in near vision, (age-related presbyopia), and results in peering over the reading glasses and the difficulty of seeing clearly 'anywhere within arms reach'. Dammit, I have to get 'young people' to read me stuff in supermarkets now!

Sadly we almost all get there eventually. Among my immediate close friends, most of us now need reading specs, but there are two who just dont! (about 10%)

Best wishes
Andrew Bellamy


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