A viral social media question asked users to “Poorly explain what you do for a living.” The answers ranged from “I bust through your front door and spray all your things down with water” (fireman) to “I get paid to be someone else” (actor). The facetious answer I sometimes give to people is “I stare at a computer screen all day.” Regardless of your job function or even whether your job is in-person or remote, how many of us could describe our jobs that way? And when we’re not staring at a computer screen, we are often looking at our phones, tablets, or TV screens.
As a result of staring at screens, over half of all adults and an increasing number of children in the United States and other countries suffer from digital eye strain or DES.[i] DES is defined by the American Optometric Association as “a group of eye and vision-related problems that results from prolonged usage of computers, tablets, e-readers, and cell phones which causes increased stress to near vision in particular. It also describes the inclusion of ocular, visual and musculoskeletal symptoms due to prolonged use of a computer.”[ii]
Optometrists have prescribed the “20-20-20” rule to reduce DES: every 20 minutes, take your eyes off the screen for 20 seconds and look at a distant object at least 20 feet away.[iii] A longer break of 15 minutes every two hours is also recommended. Of course, if you’re like me I’m tempted to spend that time looking at another screen. So what can we do to really give our eyes a break?
January 20 is Take a Walk Outdoors Day. Taking a walk outdoors is guaranteed to focus your eyes on objects at least 20 feet away. Whether your walk takes you through city streets or nature trails, the change of scenery will do your tired eyes good. As we know, Colorado prides itself on over 300 days of sunshine a year but a walk in the rain or snow will be equally beneficial, not only for the eyes, but for the rest of you as well. Walking helps with cardiovascular fitness, muscle and bone strength, energy levels, mood and cognition, and the immune system. As Hippocrates observed, “Walking is the best medicine.”
Walking with a family member or friend helps you stay connected and build relationships. Dogs are excellent walking partners and it’s good for them too. Walking alone can also be enjoyable, whether accompanied by music, podcasts, audiobooks, or just soaking in the sounds of nature.
Even knowing all these benefits it’s easy to use the excuse that we’re just too busy. But consider the research done by Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab. Participants were measured with electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment during back-to-back video meetings. Those who took breaks between meetings showed more engaged brain activity and less stress compared with those who didn’t. The study concluded: “In sum, breaks are not only good for wellbeing, they also improve our ability to do our best work.”[iv]
If it’s good for your eyes and overall health, plus makes you more effective in your work, why not take a break? Even while writing this blog post, I find that I’m experiencing some symptoms of DES. Time to go for a walk.