Take It Easy: Vigorous Exercise May Increase Macular Degeneration

Take It Easy: Vigorous Exercise May Increase Macular Degeneration

A good exercise program along with a plant-based dominant diet are the cornerstones of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, particularly when it comes to your eyesight. However, like most things, if you overdo it you might pay a price. It turns out that even though you may think you’re doing yourself some good, vigorous exercise could increase macular degeneration, especially in men. 

A large study by South Korean researchers proved a significant percentage of men may be at risk for developing or rapidly progressing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), simply by exercising too hard. If you ever needed an excuse to cutback on your intense workout sessions, now is the time.

Exercise is Good, Up to a Point

Exercise has always been a go-to therapy and sometimes even a cure for a variety of human ailments such as depression, anxiety, and stress. It has even been recommended by more than one  scientific study to help prevent or slow down macular degeneration. 

In the American Journal of Ophthalmology, Australian researchers published the study, ‘Physical Activity and Age-related Macular Degeneration: A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-analysis.’ This study consisted of research from nine studies that included participants ranging between 30-97 years old. It stated that, 

“Physical activity was found to have a protective association with both early AMD and late AMD…Physical activity is associated with lower odds of early and late AMD in white populations. These findings have important implications, reinforcing the public health message of staying active throughout life.”

Exercise and AMD research was also found in one of the most respected and popular studies of AMD; The Beaver Dam study. This consisted of 3874 men and women from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin ages 43-86. Subjects were recruited for this study between the years of 1988-1990 and evaluated every 5 years for 15 years after that. Amongst a wide range of pertinent data, the study included in its conclusion that,

“Increased walking of more than 12 blocks daily decreased the incidence of exudative AMD by 30% over 15 years.”

This is all well and good when adhering to a reasonable activity protocol. Namely thirty minutes or more of daily cardio and some light weight training three times per week. Yet, when you try to push the envelope and spend time going full tilt, such as five or more hard workouts per week, you could be stressing your retina. 

NewsMax Health cites a study in JAMA Ophthalmology that reported, 

“…men who exercise vigorously five or more days each week are 54 percent more likely to develop macular degeneration than those who do not.”

This finding raised some eyebrows as exercise, the once considered ‘cornerstone of health’, became its own worst enemy.

Surprising Data

Researchers were surprised when the JAMA study showed the effects vigorous exercise had on the eyes. From 2002 to 2013 data from participating subjects were followed starting with 211,960 men and women aged 45 to 64 years of age self-reporting past strenuous physical activity. 

The study concluded that,

“The findings of our longitudinal study demonstrate an unexpected and negative link between past vigorous PA [physical activity] and subsequent risk for neovascular [new blood vessel growth] AMD []. This unexpected association appears to be different between men and women. Frequent vigorous PA in men aged 45 to 64 years was associated with a higher incidence of neovascular AMD.”

There was, however, another study that may show the effects of taxing physical activity on the visual health of women. Out of 20,816 participants, a study published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology stated and concluded that, 

“…early, intermediate and late AMD were detected at follow-up in 4244 (21%), 2661 (13%) and 122 (0.6%) participants, respectively…Past frequent vigorous exercise may be inversely related to the presence of intermediate AMD in women.”

This kind of data lead researchers to look deeper into how the retina reacts when the body is under significant, continued physical stress. 

Inside the Retina

It is believed that the choroid, a sensitive vascular membrane that surrounds the retina, is affected  in some people who are pushing their body to the limits of physical activity. When vigorous exercise is continued at a high degree for long periods of time, the choroid membrane could experience a blood flow thickness or thinning that should be included when evaluating a patient for AMD. 

In one study published in the Indian Journal of Ophthalmology titled ‘Choroidal thickness changes after dynamic exercise as measured by spectral-domain optical coherence tomography’ it was concluded that,

“This study investigated the CT [choroidal thickness] response to dynamic exercise in 19 participants and showed that a short period of dynamic exercise leads to a significant increase in CT in healthy adults lasting for up to 15 min, whereas there was no significant change in retinal thickness. These findings demonstrate that, though CT increases after dynamic exercise, retinal thickness remains stable. This result should be considered when choroidal and retinal thickness is evaluated in chorioretinal disease or clinical research.”

More studies of the choroid and surrounding tissue response to vigorous exercise need to be done to confirm this link. In the meantime, if you are going to commit to a serious physical training program you should inform your doctor of your plans. This way you can be monitored if any adjustments need to be made regarding your medical history, particularly if you are taking medication. Just as important, according to this research, you’ll want to also check in with your eye doctor about every six months if vigorous training is your protocol. If the choroid membrane is responding your eye doctor may be able to detect it as well as any early signs of age-related macular degeneration. If anything from your eye doctor checkups are suspect, you can adjust your exercise program accordingly. Even mild exercise, such as walking, can be highly effective in avoiding AMD.