Study: School Backpacks Too Heavy

B O S T O N, Feb. 13, 2001 -- Jared Idels, 13, takes the bus to and from WaylandMiddle School, so his heavy backpack doesn't usually bother him.But it became a problem recently when he had to walk his littlebrother home from elementary school.

"That day, he really complained about how heavy his backpackwas," said his mother, Sue. "I don't think I'd want to walk amile with that thing on."

Jared may not be alone in carrying a huge weight on hisshoulders, according to a new study.

Simmons College professor Shelly Goodgold found that 55 percentof fifth- through eighth-grade students she surveyed carry backpackloads weighing more than 15 percent of their body weight. One-thirdof those students said they've suffered back pain.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that childrencarry no more than 10 percent to 20 percent of their weight in abackpack.

The results of the new study are to be presented Saturday at anational conference of the American Physical Therapy Association inSan Antonio. The study was based on a survey of 345 Massachusettschildren.

Strains Back and Neck

"When you carry something that is really heavy, your head goesforward and you lean forward," said Goodgold, an associateprofessor of physical therapy. "This can produce strains in theneck, and strains in the back. Holding it over one shoulder canalso create imbalances."

Previous studies have shown that wearing a backpack on oneshoulder might increase the curvature of the spine in scoliosispatients, said Dr. Scott Bautch, president of the AmericanChiropractic Association's Council on Occupational Health.

Bautch said that other back problems have also been documented.

"There is a trend that kids are having back pain earlier," hesaid. "And it's not only caused by backpacks. They are sitting infront of computers, and doing other sedentary activities."

Additional studies of backpack pain are under way, including oneat Northeastern University focusing on high schoolers. And theNational Association of State Textbook Administrators is holding a"Summit on Textbook Size and Weight" at its annual meeting inMarch.

Goodgold decided to focus her study on growing children afterdiscovering that previous backpack pain studies dealt only withadults, particularly postal workers and military personnel.

"On a personal basis, people are very interested in this,"Goodgold said. "We all see it as a problem, but no one wants to doanything about it. Schools are increasing standards, they areraising the level of homework assignments, which means more booksto take home."

The Wayland, Mass., public school system is one of many acrossthe country that have begun to address the problem. Schoolofficials there have distributed extra copies of some textbooks tomiddle school students so they don't have to carry as many booksbetween school and home.

Goodgold suggests that school districts that can't afford to buymore books could issue texts on CD-ROM or put them online sostudents don't have to take heavy books home.

Some parents are seeking to tackle the problem by buying theirchildren better packs. Peter Nawrocki, owner of the six Relax theBack stores in the Boston area, says an increasing number ofparents are bringing their children in to get more ergonomicbackpacks.

But the back-friendly backpacks, which feature supportiveshoulder and waist straps, aren't always popular with middleschoolers.

"I have two sons, one in the fifth grade and one in the eighthgrade, and it's very difficult to get them to use these things,"Nawrocki said. "They say it's not cool."

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