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U College of Health Team Reminds School Children: Carrying Heavy Backpacks Unhealthy

Sept. 28, 2004 — “What’s in your backpack?” It’s a question worth asking school children as a way of reminding them that heavy backpacks, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, don’t make for healthy backs, according to experts from the University of Utah College of Health’s Division of Occupational Therapy.

JoAnne Wright, Ph.D., OTR/L, assistant professor and division chair; Nancy Johns, clinical education coordinator in the division; and six occupational therapy students visited J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School in Salt Lake City last week to evaluate the backpacks of 80 students.

The group assessed fourth-, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders as part of a campaign by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), which designated Sept. 22 as National Backpack Awareness Day.

The group’s findings: Most fourth-graders carried backpacks that were no more than 15 percent of a student’s weight, as recommended by AOTA. (Per this standard, the backpack of a student weighing 100 pounds should weigh 15 pounds or less) But many of the sixth- to eight-graders carried backpacks weighing 25-30 pounds – too heavy for them.

“We found children who carried their gym clothes in their backpacks all week so they won’t forget to bring them,” said Johns. There were also many students who didn’t carry their “messenger” bags properly. This type of bag should be worn with the strap diagonal across the trunk, and should be adjusted to the hip level or above.

Improper use of or overloading a backpack, like bad posture, is usually a result of a bad habit, noted Johns. For this reason, she said, every day should be Backpack Awareness Day. Children who spend excessive time watching TV or in front of the computer, instead of playing outdoors and exercising, are especially vulnerable to backaches due to heavy backpacks, Johns added.

More than 40 million students in the United States carry backpacks, according to AOTA. In 2001, more than 7,000 emergency room visits were related to backpacks and book bags. About half of those injuries occurred in children 5 to 14 years old.