Sports, Exercise, and Glaucoma: Safe Practices and Recommendations

Senior couple jogging outdoors in a park

Exercise and sports can be part of a healthy lifestyle for individuals with glaucoma.

Glaucoma is a serious eye condition that affects the optic nerve, which is the vital link between the eye and the brain responsible for vision. One of the primary risk factors for glaucoma is elevated intraocular pressure (IOP), which can cause damage to the optic nerve over time, a critical factor in glaucoma management. While glaucoma can be asymptomatic in its early stages, ongoing monitoring and treatment are crucial to prevent significant vision loss.

Physical activity is widely recognized for its myriad health benefits, including improving cardiovascular health, enhancing mental well-being, and maintaining a healthy weight. However, for individuals with glaucoma, not all forms of exercise are equally advisable.

Exercise and sports can be part of a healthy lifestyle for individuals with glaucoma, provided they choose activities that do not endanger their eye health. By understanding the relationship between exercise and IOP, people with glaucoma can make informed decisions about their physical activities, ensuring they stay safe while maintaining their health and well-being.

What Is Glaucoma?

Glaucoma is a group of eye conditions that damages the optic nerve, affecting approximately 80 million people worldwide, including more than 3 million Americans. It’s often related to increased pressure within the eye. For unclear reasons, different optic nerves have varying susceptibility to damage from a given eye pressure.

Glaucoma can lead to visual field loss and blindness in severe cases and when untreated. The main type of glaucoma in Western countries is primary open-angle glaucoma.

The symptoms are usually not noticeable at first, making regular eye exams critical. There’s currently no cure for glaucoma, but doctors can effectively use medications, lasers, and surgical procedures to prevent or slow further damage from occurring.


Aerobic Exercise Can Be Beneficial

Incorporating regular, moderate aerobic exercises into one’s lifestyle can be a proactive approach to managing glaucoma. A study published by the National Institutes of Health found that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity decreased the average rate of visual field (VF) loss by approximate­ly 10 percent.

Aerobic exercises, like walking, running, and swimming, stand out for their ability to significantly lower IOP. These exercises enhance cardiovascular fitness, improving blood circulation throughout the body, including the eyes. Enhanced blood flow is particularly beneficial to the optic nerve and retina, vital components of the eye that are adversely affected by high IOP.

When individuals engage in regular aerobic activities, the body’s overall blood flow increases, which includes the blood supply to the eye structures. Improved blood circulation provides essential nutrients and oxygen to the eye, promoting healthier eye function and potentially reducing the risk of damage caused by high IOP.

Yoga Can Be Harmful or Beneficial

While some yoga types and disciplines may be beneficial to people with glaucoma, others, especially those that involve inversions, may not be suitable.

Researchers are studying whether yoga-based Tratak ocular exercise might decrease IOP in glaucoma patients and halt further damage of retinal ganglion cells (RGCs).

Other yoga practices, especially those that involve inversions like headstands or downward-facing dog, can increase IOP, which can potentially lead to a higher risk of optic nerve damage.

The safest way for people with glaucoma to practice yoga is to avoid inversions altogether. Individuals with elevated intraocular pressure (IOP) and advanced glaucoma must be careful with certain yoga positions that can elevate IOP levels. These poses include:

  • The Adho Mukha Svanasana yoga position, commonly known as “downward-facing dog.”
  • The Halasana position, also known as the “yoga plow.”
  • The Viparita Karani position, also known as “legs up the wall.”

Strength Training: Proceed With Caution

Due to the absence of extensive studies on the effect of weight training, experts recommend using caution and common sense. Certain weightlifting exercises, especially those that involve holding one’s breath or heavy lifting, can significantly increase IOP, potentially exacerbating the condition. As with yoga, people with glaucoma may need to avoid exercises that involve straining or inverted positions, which can lead to spikes in eye pressure.

Safe Sports Practices for Individuals With Glaucoma

When it comes to sports, the key is choosing activities that do not pose a risk to eye health. Non-contact sports and those that do not require sudden, intense exertion are generally safer options for individuals with glaucoma.

Recommended Sports

  • Walking and Jogging: These are excellent for cardiovascular health without significantly impacting IOP.
  • Swimming: A great all-around exercise, but goggles that are too tight should be avoided, as they can increase IOP.
  • Cycling: When it’s stationary or on level surfaces, cycling can be beneficial if done without excessive straining.

Sports to Avoid

  • High-Impact Sports: Activities like boxing or basketball, in which there’s a risk of eye injury, should be avoided.

Help Us Provide Hope

Incorporating regular, moderate exercise into one’s lifestyle can offer significant benefits for individuals with glaucoma, helping to manage IOP, improve blood flow, and reduce stress. However, it’s crucial to tailor exercise routines to individual needs and medical advice, ensuring that the activities support ocular health without introducing additional risks.

Glaucoma can be successfully treated with early diagnosis, treatment, and careful monitoring, preventing it from causing permanent and significant vision impairment.

The diligent work of researchers continues to lead to a better understanding of glaucoma every day. As a result, there’s great hope for new and improved treatments, including superior drug delivery methods, laser treatments, and less invasive surgical techniques. You can help make that happen!

Posted on April 1, 2024. Article reviewed for medical accuracy by Sahar Bedrood, MD, PhD.

Sahar Bedrood, MD, PhD

Sahar Bedrood, MD, PhD

Dr. Sahar Bedrood is a board-certified and fellowship-trained ophthalmologist in Los Angeles, California with a focus in glaucoma and advanced cataract surgery. She has an MD/PhD from Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, an undergraduate degree from UCLA and surgical fellowship training from John’s Hopkins University.