Healthier Backs for Back to School

It’s that time of year when students aged 5-25 head back into the classroom. Unfortunately, the majority of students spend their time sitting for long periods and lugging heavy backpacks to and from school and different classes. This combination puts students at an increased risk for neck, shoulder and back injuries. 23% of elementary kids and 33% of high school kids complain of back pain. Individuals (of all ages) who spend most of their time sitting are 30% more at risk for back injuries. The most common risk factor for injury is bad posture! “Slouching” leads to a forward head posture and rounded back/shoulders, which increases tension in the muscles, stress on the ligaments and joints, and increased compressive forces in the spine. The goal of this article is to provide some valuable tips for students (and their parents who likely sit all day as well) in order to develop better postural habits at school AND home (good posture isn’t just for the classroom; it’s also important while playing video games, texting, etc.).

Posture

Students, especially as they get older, spend a large portion of their day seated at a desk. Unfortunately, school classrooms are not designed ergonomically for different body types. Younger children may have their feet dangling in the air as they sit on chairs too high for them, while taller teenagers are crammed into a small desk. While you can’t do much about the furniture at school, here are some tips about what you can change:

  • Avoid slouching – see image below;

  • It’s hard to stay in perfect posture ALL the time, so cheat a little. Roll up a sweater and stuff it behind your lower back to help support your back and make your muscles work less;
  • Try to sit with both feet on the ground with equal weight through both sides (try not to cross your ankles/legs or sit with all your weight leaning to one side);
  • What does good posture feel and look like? Take grandmas advice, “walk/sit with a book on your head.” I challenge you to grab a paperback and try this from a slouched position and then with good posture. It works, and will give you a feel for how you should be sitting;
  • Get up and move around when you can. Obviously don’t disrupt the class, but if a break is given and the opportunity arises to get out of your chair, take advantage of it;
  • At home (and at school, if possible), look at your setup and see what you can change. Is your chair at a good height? Is your desk at a good height? Obviously most classrooms are pretty standard, but at home you can make adjustments to your chair and/or desk;
  • Use a standing workstation, if possible.

Backpacks

Despite the push for a paperless society, backpacks still get crammed with a ton of stuff. Heavy backpacks can put a lot of strain on the neck and shoulders, as well as excessive loading on the spine. Some of the more stylish bags aren’t necessarily the most practical. What should you look for in a good backpack?

  • Lightweight – a fully loaded backpack (lunch, books, supplies, etc.) should not weigh more than 10-15% of the students body weight;
  • Make sure the backpack has two padded straps. Crossbody, handbags, and/or carrying the bag on one shoulder increases the chance of strain on the shoulder, neck and upper back;
  • Make sure the straps are adjustable. Shorter straps exert less pressure on the back.
  • Look for wider straps (i.e., 5 cm) that distribute the weight more evenly;
  • The upper border of the bag should not be higher that the shoulder, and the lower border should not reach the hip bone.

The school year is just beginning, so get off to a healthy start. If you have any questions about postural exercises, or would like your child to have a postural assessment, talk with one of the therapists at Sheddon Physiotherapy and Sports Clinic, and they can assess posture and provide appropriate exercises.

Poursadeghiyan et al., (2017). The effects of the manner of carrying the bags on musculoskeletal symptoms in school students in the city of IIam, Iran. Annals of Tropical Medicne and Public Health. 10,3,600-605.