In addition to being great for our mental health, spending time outdoors is also beneficial for our vision as a kid. Research suggests that spending time outside can slow and prevent myopia (also known as nearsightedness, meaning far away things appear blurry) which develops during childhood. With that in mind, like our skin requires protection when outside (hello, sunscreen), so proper sun protection is equally important.
Below, opthalmologist Ashley Brissette, MD, explains why going outside is good for vision in childhood and the best practices to follow when outdoors to keep your kids’ eyes healthy long into adulthood.
Why going outside is good for vision health
The eyes grow and develop during childhood, and various factors can affect their growth. Dr. Brissette says that myopia, in particular, is caused by an increase in the eye's axial length. In other words, the eye grows longer than normal. If too much myopia develops, she says that can impact the quality of the vision and make it very blurry to see far away. Too much near activity—meaning looking at things up close, such as computers, TVs, phones, and other digital devices—can also impact the way the eye grows and lead to the progression of nearsightedness, Dr. Brissette adds.
The good news? Outdoor time can help. A meta-analysis based on randomized controlled trials published in 2020 found that spending time outside in sunlight benefits eye development in children ages 6 to 12. "Exposure to outdoor light has been shown to reduce eye growth, thereby reducing the progression of myopia," Dr. Brissette explains. "As well, when children play outside, they are often looking far away, tracking, and using other components of visual development which are important for eye health."
Simply put, the benefits of spending time outside are twofold for children: It decreases the amount of time focusing on things up close, and sunlight helps slow down eye growth, reducing the risk of developing myopia.
That said, Dr. Brissette notes that the study only looked at the effect of sunlight on eyes as they develop and grow, which only happens during childhood. (Sorry, adults!) So it's essential to ensure kids spend more time outside and follow the safe sun practices below.
Eye health best practices when spending time outdoors
Aim for 40 minutes a day
Like with most good things, too much time outdoors can be harmful, which is why Dr. Brissette recommends being mindful about the extent of sunlight exposure. Not only can the sun's UV rays have detrimental effects on the eyes, but they can also affect the skin around the eyes. "Too much UV exposure can lead to cataract formation, as well as the development of skin cancers on the eyes and eyelids," she says, adding that applying sunscreen to those delicate areas is essential.
As a rule of thumb, she advises spending 40 minutes a day getting indirect outdoor exposure to sunlight, as recommended by the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Sunglasses are to the eyes what sunscreen is to the skin—wearing them is a must when outside. However, not all sunnies are created equal. For optimal protection, Dr. Brissette recommends ones with 100-percent UV protection. This is not to be confused with polarization, which she explains is a coating that helps reduce glare (great if you're doing sports outside) but doesn't have protective effects on the eyes. Bonus points for hats to shield from the sun, especially when outdoors for long periods.
Don't look directly at the sun
Sunglasses or not, children and adults alike must avoid looking directly at the sun. "Intense light and UV rays can lead to photodamage of the delicate ocular tissues," Dr. Brissette says. "For example, photokeratitis, which is like a sunburn on the surface of the eyes, can occur, as well as the development of macular degeneration after prolonged UV exposure."
So, keep your kids’ peepers protected while spending time out of doors, and try to make it a habit of spending at least 40 minutes in the fresh air every day.
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