Carrying a school bag is something all Irish children have to do. However, it is an activity that is often associated with pain, discomfort and poor posture.
The adverse effects of schoolbag carriage can be decreased if there is awareness of basic ergonomic principles. Consider the type of school bag, the contents and method of lifting and carrying the bag. There appears to be a worrying trend now of shoulder bags worn, over one shoulder, being used as schoolbags. It is not the ideal way to wear your school bag as it can lead to poor posture and significant discomfort. We want to get across at the start of the school year that there are simple things which parents and children can do to minimise discomfort, similar to the approach used in risk assessment in the workplace, and make the most from the exercise that children can get when walking to school with their bags.
Some tips include:
- Buy a lightweight backpack style bag with adjustable padded shoulder straps - A backpack carried on the back requires less effort. Padded shoulder straps are comfortable to wear and when adjusted correctly ensure the correct fit of the bag.
- Buy a bag that fits the child - A bag that is too big for the child, or that has not been adjusted to fit correctly will hit against the child’s bottom as he/she walks. The bag will move out of step with the child’s normal gait pattern, this can result in a feeling of discomfort and greater feeling of effort.
- Look also for a padded back and a waist strap if possible - Waist strap distributes weight and a padded back protects the back.
- Put the heaviest items close to the back - This means less strain on the spine.
- Wear the bag on the back with the straps on both shoulders - Carrying the bag on the back requires less effort and encourages better posture than carrying over one shoulder, which causes shoulder elevation on the side of carriage and side flexion to the opposite side.
- Carry only what you have to - Think ahead and only carry books and other items they require. If there is a locker available in school, they should make good use of it.
- Carry the schoolbag only when you have to - If you are standing around or waiting for a bus, leave the school bag on the floor/ground whilst waiting.
- Avoid swinging the school bag around and lifting it on the back - This applies a combination of rotation and side flexion with force to the spine. It is better to place the bag on a surface and then with your back to the bag, put your arms through the straps. Alternatively, another person could help by holding the bag while the child puts their arms through the straps.
- Where possible involve your school, maybe encourage better timetabling of classes to minimise need for all books to be brought to school every day.
Carrying a school bag is not all bad. The Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists advocates that exercise and movement is critical to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and promotes a minimum of 60 minutes activity per day for children or 15,000 steps. Walking to school with a school bag may be the only form of exercise that some children take, therefore we want to encourage, not discourage it. Promoting the steps to take to limit the potential discomfort by applying best practice is the best way forward to ensure we get that balance right.
Sara Dockrell is a Chartered Physiotherapist and Assistant Professor at the School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin and is actively involved in teaching and research in the area of Back Care and Ergonomics.