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Back to school: How to choose a backpack that won’t hurt your back

Pens and pencils? Check. Notebooks? Check. The only thing left on your school supply list is the bag to carry all the items required to set your up for success this year.

But choosing a backpack takes much more consideration than simply picking the one with your favorite design or cartoon character. Karena Wu, physical therapist and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in NYC and Mumbai, encourages students to pay special attention to the construction and material used when selecting a backpack.

Not only are students packing all those school supplies they stocked up on, “but when they get to school they are getting textbooks, and in this day and age, probably also getting tablets and e-readers,” says Wu. “The amount of stuff you put in the backpack, in addition to the amount of stuff the school is going to give students a lot of weight.”

Her rule of thumb? You should not carry more than 10-15 percent of their body weight in your backpack. “We’ve all seen the postural change that happens when an student is carrying more than this; their shoulders hunch and round as the weight pulls them down and backwards,” says Wu.

“The backpack is a necessary accessory for the whole school year, it has to be fashionable for the student — and functional. It’s important to not have any necessary school item cause issues with your body,” says Wu.

What to look for in a backpack

To prevent your backpack (and the weight inside) from causing neck or back issues, here’s what to look for:

  • Lots of compartments. The more pockets the better, so that you can put all the different items in different areas. “The single sack backpack is not the best because things get jostled around,” says Wu, adding that this concentrates all the weight in one section, versus dispersing it evenly among the backpack with different pockets. “Organize the pens, binders and notebooks in the backpack so that the load isn’t shifted to one side or the other,” she says.
  • Thin, durable material. “The backpack should not add more weight to what you are already carrying,” says Wu. “No heavy materials and no thin materials because they can shred pretty quickly.”
  • Padded back and straps. “Anything without a back pad isn’t great because if you have a pencil that gets lose or a book turns, that sharp corner can actually jab you in the back,” says Wu, adding that thin, flat straps, can also dig into your shoulders with the added weight. Look for ventilated padding (typically made from foam with a mesh overlay), which is aerated so that the backpack doesn’t get too hot on your child, says Wu. She also recommends contoured straps, which conform more comfortably to the child’s body.
  • Chest and waist strap and buckle. “This keeps the bag centered on your torso, which helps disperse the load that you are carrying down through your spine,” says Wu.
  • Consider a rolling bag. If your school allows it, a bag with a rolling feature can be a great way to help give your back a break from lugging around all that weight.

How to properly wear a backpack

Investing in the right backpack is only half the battle. How you use it also makes a difference. “You might be complaining about the homework, but you definitely don’t want to complain about any injuries,” says Wu. “So learning them good habits so you are not compromising your health.”

  • Wear both straps. While it may be “cool” to sling the backpack over one shoulder, teach your kids to utilize both straps. “When you use one strap it makes your shoulder shrug up and that can cause shoulder and neck issues. It can also make you stand on one side versus the another and in a developing child creates a side-bending moment in the spine, which isn’t ideal.”
  • Keep the weight close to the body. Adjust the straps so that the backpack sits squarely on your child’s back and the weight is close to their torso. “Too heavy of a load too far from the body creates forward head-shoulder posture and a rounded spine that leads to neck, middle back and low-back issues, says Wu. “And the bad posture can actually impact other systems like breathing, gastrointestinal or stomach issues and even affect self confidence.”
  • Set it down when standing. “If you are standing for a prolonged period of time, you should put the backpack down to unload the spine.”

By Brianna Steinhilber

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