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Health & Wellness

Take a Load Off

Backpack too heavy? Here’s how to fix it


Karen Jacobs has been hearing a lot of complaints lately from students with pain in their necks and shoulders. And the occupational therapist and clinical professor at Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences knows exactly what the problem is: larger and heavier loads in backpacks. What was once essentially a book bag, she says, now carries everything from laptops to lunch.

How do you know if your backpack is too heavy? Jacobs (SAR’79) suggests that if it weighs more than 10 to 15 percent of the weight of the person carrying it, it’s time to lighten up. And if you find yourself leaning to one side or if you have red indentations on your shoulders, it’s definitely time to take something out of the pack.

“The good news,” says Jacobs, “is that with education on how to pick the right backpack, how to pack it correctly, and how to wear it correctly, we can really eliminate some of the concerns we’re seeing with backpack use.”

Jacobs offers the following tips on how to buy, pack, and carry a backpack.

How to pack a backpack

  • Place the heaviest items toward the back.
  • Secure items so they don’t slide around.
  • Arrange pointy objects so they don’t poke you in the back.

How to keep the weight off

  • Carry water bottles empty. Fill them before class.
  • Carry only what you need. Leave the rest in your room.

How to choose a backpack

  • Look for ample padding in the back and shoulder straps. The straps should be curved and at least two inches wide.
  • Choose a pack with hip belts and chest straps to better distribute the weight and secure the backpack to your back.
  • Choose a pack with multiple compartments so you can distribute the weight more evenly.

How to wear a backpack

  • The height of the backpack should extend from approximately two inches below the shoulder blades to waist level or slightly above the waist.
  • Always wear the backpack on both shoulders so the weight is evenly distributed.

As part of National School Backpack Awareness Day, on Wednesday, September 21, 2011, the Sargent College Rotaract Club will hold a weigh-in at Sargent for students concerned about how much they should be carrying in their backpacks. More information is available here.

This article was originally published August 25, 2008.

Robin Berghaus

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

2 Comments on Take a Load Off

  • Anonymous on 08.25.2008 at 6:12 am

    great video

    Great job Karen! This video did a great job describing the potential dangers of carrying a backpack that is too heavy. I also like how you determine how much weight an individual should and should not carry in their packs. Lastly, explaining the correct ergonomics and then allowing the student to actually experiece what a proper fitting backpack feels like is an EXCELLENT way to “prove” your stance. Keep up the great work!

    Moni K.
    Doctoral Student of Occupational Therapy
    Boston University

  • Dr. Michael Becker on 08.25.2008 at 10:32 am

    Backpacks large enough to carry one’s maximum load ironically are difficult to wear when not full because the contents shift around with movement. I’ve solved that problem by always carrying an empty cafeteria type tray that goes in first (back of tray up against my back) and is the approximate length and width of the pack. The tray weighs but a few ozs. and acts as an internal frame or externally, as a, need I say it, tray(!) a great lap platform for reading and writing on large floppy books when you are sitting on a bench in the sun.

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