Outdoor time is good for your kids' eyesight. It protects against myopia : Shots - Health News Childhood myopia, or nearsightedness, is growing rapidly in the U.S. and around the world. Researchers say kids who spend two hours outside every day, are less likely to develop the condition.

Want to protect your kids' eyes from myopia? Get them to play outside

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you are a parent struggling to get your kids off their devices and outdoors to play, here is another reason to keep trying. Spending at least 2 hours outside each day may be the most important thing your kids can do to protect them from becoming nearsighted. NPR's Maria Godoy has this report.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: On a sunny weekday afternoon, a group of elementary school age kids play tag at a park in suburban Silver Spring, Md.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Not it.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Not it.

GODOY: This outdoor playtime isn't just good fun and exercise. Research shows it's also key to preventing children from developing myopia, or nearsightedness.

NOHA EKDAWI: About 50% of my patients have myopia, which is an incredibly high number.

GODOY: Dr. Noha Ekdawi is a pediatric ophthalmologist in Wheaton, Ill. She says the number of kids she sees with myopia has grown astronomically over the 15 years she's been in practice.

EKDAWI: Near-sightedness is just needing glasses to see distance. And inherently being nearsighted isn't bad, necessarily.

GODOY: The problem is when you get myopia in childhood, it gets progressively worse. Myopia occurs when the eyeball stretches and grows too long, so faraway objects look blurry. If the eyeball stretches too much, it can increase the risk of serious eye problems down the road.

EKDAWI: Like retinal detachments, macular problems, glaucoma, cataract.

GODOY: That's why prevention is so important. But how can spending time outside help? That's what Ian Morgan wanted to know. He's a researcher at the Australian National University. A couple of decades ago, Morgan noticed that rates of myopia in East Asia were much higher than they were in Sydney.

IAN MORGAN: We thought, well, Australians are famous for their outdoor-oriented lifestyle. And we thought maybe there's a link between getting outside a lot and preventing the development of myopia.

GODOY: So he designed a two-year study of more than 4,000 kids in Sydney to test that theory. Turns out, he was right.

MORGAN: The children who reported spending more time outdoors were less likely to be myopic and we showed later are less likely to become myopic.

GODOY: Morgan's research got the attention of Dr. Pei-Chang Wu, an ophthalmologist in Taiwan. His young son was starting first grade, and he worried about Taiwan's sky-high rates of myopia. Ninety percent of students there have it by the time they leave school. Wu says the academic culture in Taiwan's schools didn't allow for much outdoor recess.

PEI-CHANG WU: Many teachers - they want students to practice their homework. And in Taiwan, outside is also very hot.

GODOY: Kids weren't so keen to go outside, but Wu convinced his son's elementary school to increase outdoor time. He also recruited a control school. A year later, his son's school had half as many new myopia cases as the other school.

WU: We see the results very successful.

GODOY: He did more research at more schools and eventually convinced Taiwan's Ministry of Education to encourage all elementary schools to send students outdoors for at least 2 hours a day every day. Since the program launched in 2010, Taiwan's childhood myopia rates have dropped significantly. Ian Morgan says it's a huge achievement.

MORGAN: Certainly the people who have lead the field are the people in Taiwan.

GODOY: Noha Ekdawi says the leading theory about why outdoor time helps is that outdoor light stimulates the eye to release more of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

EKDAWI: We think it raises dopamine levels in their bodies and changes something about the growth rate of the back of the eye to stop it from stretching and that's that stretching that causes nearsightedness.

GODOY: To get that eyesight protection, the research suggests kids should be spending at least 2 hours a day outdoors every single day.

EKDAWI: To me, it's like eat your vegetables. You have to spend time outside.

GODOY: Ekdawi says, it doesn't even matter if it's sunny or cloudy or what the kids are doing.

EKDAWI: You can go to the park, you can ride your bike, you can sit and be a tree, walk your dog - all these things count.

GODOY: If you're worried about time for homework, have them do it outside too. As long as they're outdoors, that's what matters.

Maria Godoy, NPR News.

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