Science just discovered an exercise benefit you weren’t expecting

There are plenty of reasons to exercise and work out. Whether you’re looking to rediscover that long lost set of abs, build some muscle, or just feel better, breaking a sweat is an essential part of leading a happy, healthy life. Tons of research projects have confirmed as much, but now a new study has uncovered an unexpected albeit very attractive additional exercise perk.

Researchers from the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine have found that exercise can help prevent, or at least slow down, vision loss. More specifically the findings suggest that exercise is particularly effective at battling macular degeneration, one of the most common forms of blindness. Working out may also help prevent other eye problems including glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy.

Using a group of lab mice, the research team at UV demonstrated that exercise decreased the amount of harmful blood vessel overgrowth in the rodents’ eyes. The entanglement of extra blood vessels in the eye is a trademark precursor to macular degeneration and various other eye problems.

This is the first research initiative to come to such a conclusion regarding exercise and macular degeneration. If these findings can indeed be validated, this discovery could potentially save countless peoples’ vision. In just the US alone tens of millions of people suffer from macular degeneration.

“There has long been a question about whether maintaining a healthy lifestyle can delay or prevent the development of macular degeneration. The way that question has historically been answered has been by taking surveys of people, asking them what they are eating and how much exercise they are performing,” says researcher Bradley Gelfand, Ph.D., of UVA’s Center for Advanced Vision Science, in a university release. “That is basically the most sophisticated study that has been done. The problem with that is that people are notoriously bad self-reporters … and that can lead to conclusions that may or not be true. This [study] offers hard evidence from the lab for the very first time.”

Furthermore, according to the study, one doesn’t have to work out all that hard either to reap these visual rewards. Among the observed mice, all that mattered was that they were exercising, not the intensity of said activities. More exercise did not necessarily lead to more protection.

“Mice are kind of like people in that they will do a spectrum of exercise. As long as they had a wheel and ran on it, there was a benefit,” Gelfand explains. “The benefit that they obtained is saturated at low levels of exercise.”

A comparison of mice that were voluntarily exercising with lazy mice revealed that the fit rodents had reduced their ocular blood vessel overgrowth by 45%. A follow-up examination was performed to confirm those results, and that time the exercising mice displayed a 32% drop in blood vessel overgrowth.

Why is exercise beneficial for the eyes? How does it stop excessive blood vessel growth? The study’s authors can’t say at this point but believe there’s probably a variety of elements at work. One such element may be that exercise increases blood flow to the eyes.

Gelfand also mentions that in many cases, the development of blindness is linked to a lack of exercise.

“It is fairly well known that as people’s eyes and vision deteriorate, their tendency to engage in physical activity also goes down,” he comments. “It can be a challenging thing to study in older people. … How much of that is one causing the other?”

Clearly, additional research on this matter is warranted. To that end, Gelfand and his team have already submitted funding proposals for future studies.

“The next step is to look at how and why this happens, and to see if we can develop a pill or method that will give you the benefits of exercise without having to exercise,” he says. “We’re talking about a fairly elderly population [of people with macular degeneration], many of whom may not be capable of conducting the type of exercise regimen that may be required to see some kind of benefit.”

So, these findings are especially relevant for older adults. It can be tempting to avoid the gym as we grow older, but this study is the latest in a long line of discoveries suggesting that the best way to keep healthy well into old age is to stay active.

The full study can be found here, published in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.