How heavy school backpacks are hurting our kids

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy 

Ever since my son started high school last year, I've noticed the weight of his backpack is well beyond what even I would carry as a one-off. It was one thing to keep his school bag relatively light in primary school, but the demands of high school are something entirely different. The text books are heavy and numerous, and he needs to carry them home to do his homework.

He's increasingly asking to be picked up, because he has too much to carry, and on days he has his musical instrument there's no way he can walk the short eight minutes to and from school. I'd prefer him to walk, but not when he's risking his spinal health.

I weighed my son twice - once with his backpack for an average school day and again with his musical instrument and sport bag. We discovered he is carrying between 11 and 14kg.

The Australian Physiotherapy Association's Paediatric Group Chair, Julianne Pegler, says that even the 11kg weight is too heavy.

"We assume that young adolescents should be able to lift very heavy weights, but it's not a good idea for anyone to be regularly lifting or carrying excessively heavy weights beyond about 10kg," she advises. "People shouldn't regularly carry more than 10 per cent of their own body weight."

Ms Pegler says the main worry, aside from spine issues, is that heavy loads encourage sedentary habits.

"We want kids to be walking or riding bikes to school. If parents are driving them, this is contributing to sedentary behaviours that lead to greater health issues. Kids aren't getting enough physical activity, and this seriously impacts fitness and obesity rates in children," she says.

So, what can be done?

"It is a requirement for kids to carry belongings to and from school and this has value in contributing to organisational skills, however it needs to be done in a ergonomic way, perhaps with a wheeled bag or a more custom-fitting backpack," Ms Pegler recommends. "Also look at finding a backpack that suits your child's body size and weight."

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But what of the schools that have mandatory one-size backpacks for all students - ones that are often large and without wheels?

Ms Pegler suggests consulting with the school about access to online texts, and working with children on organisational skills to reduce the amount of items they're carrying.

Also key is minimising carrying time and interestingly, good shoe selection. "Look for a firm heel, with good stability and also flexibility," says Ms Pegler.

"With mindfulness about school bag habits and quality school shoes working in combination, your child can look forward to all the health benefits of walking or riding to and from school."

Ms Pegler recommends the following guidelines when it comes to school backpacks:

  • Choose a backpack with wide shoulder straps that sit well on the shoulder
  • Ensure waist and chest straps help transfer some of the load to the hips and pelvis
  • A padded back-support will allow the pack to fit 'snugly' on the back
  • Ensure the backpack fits the child; don't buy a big pack to 'grow' into - the pack should not extend higher than the child's shoulders when sitting
  • Be aware that moderately weighted backpacks are not detrimental to kids' back health
  • Avoid swinging backpacks around.