Is testing eyes bad for my health?

As optometrists, we spend most of our time looking after other people's health, but have we taken time to consider our own and whether our choice of career has any impact?

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Author: Daniel Hardiman-McCartney MCOptom, Clinical Adviser
Date: 8 February 2017

We spend our days advising our patients on how to improve their eye and general health, but when was the last time you thought about your own health and wellbeing? Over the last six months I have been conducting an experiment- well perhaps less of an experiment and more like ‘playing around’ - with a fitness tracker whilst in practice and I've made some interesting observations. Now, perhaps what I am about to share will not come as a shock to the majority of optometrists reading this but to me, it was a surprise and not a little alarming: testing eyes could be bad for my health and optometry should perhaps come with the health warning that it is a seriously sedentary career.

Last summer I invested in a fitness tracker, a small wearable device which monitors how many steps I take, how far I walk and how many flights of stairs I climb each day; it also monitors my heart rate. Fitness trackers are becoming increasingly common and are used by more than 1.9 million people in the UK. Some employers are even supplying them for free to improve their team's health. I will admit to approaching my tracker with a significant dose of scepticism: after all, a fitness tracker simply monitors- it can't possibly make you healthier without exercise or dieting.

However, to my surprise I have found that monitoring my daily activity has yielded interesting results. Using a fitness tracker has brought home to me precisely how inactive my working day can be. My precise activity level will vary depending on the physical environment of the clinic in which I am working, but if I'm in a practice which is all on one floor and conducting in-room handovers, I may easily be almost completely sedentary during the working day. This matters because NHS England recommend that adults should spend 150 minutes each week completing moderate intensity activity in bouts of more than 10 minutes, in order to reduce the risk of obesity and long term health problems. Adults spending in excess of 7 hours per day sedentary are considered to be particularly at risk: my personal experience suggests that this applies to many optometrists.

I am not proposing that optometrists should be forced to do ten star jumps in-between each test, but I do think it is worth practitioners being aware that their style of practice may be particular sedentary.

I would suggest that optometrists' wellbeing is particularly vulnerable as a result of our working environment. Unlike others in stationary occupations, such as office workers, it is difficult for us adjust our working day to increase our activity levels: it is becoming increasingly common for office-based workplaces to embrace initiatives such as 'walking meetings' in order to encourage staff to move more; unfortunately, short of attaching a treadmill to the slit lamp it is difficult to see how this might be replicated in optometric practice! Moreover, optometrists may have other risk factors which compromise their health, including working all day in artificial light, infrequent and inconsistent breaks and an obligation to work at weekends when many organised sporting activities take place such as football or ‘park run’, thus limiting our opportunities for recreational exercise. In short, a career in optometry is often not conducive to an active workplace and this means that optometrists must be especially conscious of ensuring that they engage in sufficient physical activity outside the working day or perhaps risk their long term health.

I am not proposing that optometrists should be forced to do ten star jumps in-between each test, but I do think it is worth practitioners being aware that their style of practice may be particular sedentary, and as such conscious of the importance of countering it with additional activity at other times of the day. For me, this has included parking a bit further from practice and incorporating a daily stroll into my commute, taking a brisk walk at lunchtime, and avoiding the lift! However there are plenty of other options, according to Prof Mark Hamer at the University of Loughborough. He has found that completing 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity in just one or two sessions a week can be as effective as the daily activity as recommended by the NHS, suggesting that it doesn't matter when or how you exercise- the important thing is that you do something to compensate for workplace inactivity.

There have been various publications disputing whether fitness trackers are effective at improving health and wellbeing, which I will leave to the experts. I would be interested to hear from optometrists how they find their practice effects their wellbeing and what they do to counter spending all day in a consulting room. My personal experience is that a fitness tracker has been beneficial in helping me understand my activity levels, both at home and at work and modify my lifestyle accordingly: whether it will positively effect my long term health and wellbeing only time will tell, but in the short term it certainly did raise my awareness to exactly how sedentary optometry can be.

 

Daniel Hardiman-McCartney MCOptom
Clinical Adviser, College of Optometrists

Daniel graduated from Anglia Ruskin University, where he won the Haag Strait prize for best dissertation. Before joining the College, he was Managing Director of an independent practice in Cambridge and a visiting clinician at Anglia Ruskin University. He has also worked as a senior glaucoma optometrist with Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and as a diabetic retinopathy screening optometrist. Daniel was a member of Cambridgeshire LOC from 2007 to 2015 and a member of the College of Optometrists Council, representing its Eastern region, from 2009 to 2014.  

Daniel has an interest in the effects of vision in art and is known throughout the industry as a passionate advocate of iconic and artisan eyewear. He currently practises part time in independent practice, is a locum, a glaucoma specialist optometrist across East Anglia with Newmedica and is clinical adviser to the College of Optometrists.

 

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