Bearing News
Student carrying backpack art by Sophie Froese.
Student carrying backpack. Art by Sophie Froese.

Unbearable burden

Backpack weight proves detrimental for student health

On a daily basis, senior Daniel White estimates his backpack weighs between 20 and 30 pounds and includes two composition notebooks, a folder, a binder, a textbook and a book for silent reading. Because White said his backpack is “hard to keep up,” he forces himself to have good posture when carrying it, even though his back hurts more when he gets home.

“I overcorrect a lot when I’m sitting down,” White said, “so if I feel I need to change it, I change it more when I have a backpack on.”

Common estimates place the amount one should carry on his or her back between five and 15 percent of one’s body weight, though some sources put the number as high as 20 percent. Carrie Boone, a certified personal trainer who specializes in youth fitness, said the main problem backpack weight can cause is throwing one’s body out of alignment. She said when the weight exceeds five to 10 percent of one’s body weight, it can cause “neck, shoulder and lower back issues” in both teenagers and adults.

I feel like I can’t focus on a computer. I guess it’s really easy to get distracted. You can just open up a new tab or go on YouTube or something like that. It’s just easier to have a book. I can stay focused.”

Daniel White, senior

“Once you get higher than that percentage of weight, your actual spinal cord is not set for that,” Boone said. “It causes you to tip forward to accommodate for it, to try to compensate for the weight, and as soon as you tip forward your postural alignment is off.”

In past years, White has carried his textbooks with him because he prefers using a hard copy over the electronic version. He said that he usually takes his textbook with him to school in case he needs to study or use it for homework.

“I feel like I can’t focus on a computer. I guess it’s really easy to get distracted. You can just open up a new tab or go on YouTube or something like that,” White said. “It’s just easier to have a book. I can stay focused.”

Unlike White, who prefers paper to online study materials, junior Kaitlyn Doninelli enjoys the switch to electronic copies because it makes her school supplies easier to transport. Although Doninelli said in middle school she had a backpack, she has never used one in high school. Instead, she uses her purse to transport her everyday necessities — makeup, laptop for school and pencils — to and from school.

“If you’re a really simple person like me, then I definitely recommend it,” Doninelli said. “But if you’re that person that likes to keep a bunch of stuff in it, then I wouldn’t recommend it because . . . having it on one shoulder and having a lot of stuff in it could be really heavy.”

One way for schools to eliminate how much students need to carry, Boone said, is making online book options available so students can manage how much their school bags weigh. For two people of different weights taking identical course loads, the physical toll would be different for each person since the maximum recommended weight varies among individuals.

“Once you get higher than that percentage of weight, your actual spinal cord is not set for that. It causes you to tip forward to accommodate for it, to try to compensate for the weight, and as soon as you tip forward your postural alignment is off.”

Carrie Boone, certified personal trainer

“The best thing that you can do to try and take some control over it, if you can’t control the actual weight of the backpack, is to make sure it actually fits appropriately and to make sure you have it across your back, meaning both arms around, which I know is lame and nobody wants to do it from adults down to kids,” Boone said, “but having it on correctly helps distribute that weight throughout your body.”

Earlier in high school, White would wear his backpack on one shoulder, but after people smacked into it on a regular basis, he switched to wearing it over both shoulders so it was closer to his body. Since elementary school, White noticed he carries fewer “creative things,” such as crayons and markers, and “ a lot more weight and busy work” on his back. Prior to shifting toward laptops and electronic copies in high school, White would walk 13 to 15 minutes between his house and his middle school twice a day, carrying his backpack full of school supplies.

“In middle school I usually couldn’t fit the stuff I needed in my backpack, so I had to carry stuff,” White said, “and that’s why we had lockers in middle school.”

An article from healthychildren.org, American Academy of Pediatrics’ parenting website, recommends using lockers to try minimizing how much weight one must  carry throughout the school day. Still, White prefers having supplies with him to memorizing a locker combination. 

Any time people move or rearrange their bodies to offset a heavy weight they are shifting their postural alignment, Boone said. Such “dis-alignment” can cause some muscles to lengthen while others tighten, leading to a general imbalance that puts one at risk of spraining an ankle or suffering from another avoidable injury. She said the human body is “truly meant to be a certain way,” so maintaining poor postural alignment for the “majority of our waking hours” is like “asking for injuries.” 

“It’s not as if kids are just wearing that backpack from home to the bus stop. They’re wearing it from home to the bus stop, then they’re wearing it all day off and on throughout the day and on the way home, so it’s the majority of their waking hours throughout the school year,” Boone said. “If that backpack is more than five to 10 percent of their body weight, that’s pretty extreme.”

How does the weight of your backpack affect your health? Let us know in the comments below.

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1 comment

Desmond Kisida January 29, 2020 at 11:26 pm

On an average day I carry two binders and my laptop. I stay as efficient and organized as I can to keep by bag from weighing a ton and being a hassle. I also keep all of my textbooks at home because those are the heaviest things ever and if I need to use a textbook at school I can always borrow one from the library or a friend.

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