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Lugging around a heavy backpack with textbooks, a computer, and everything you think you’ll need for a day on campus can be a real pain! You might think you need full notebooks and every bit of technology for class, but do you really?

Carrying all this and the kitchen sink can really weigh you down, resulting in unnecessary back pain. Recent information from the National Institutes of Health indicates that many students carry backpacks or shoulder bags that exceed 10-15 percent of their body weight. This is upwards of a 15 lb. bag for most students! Research published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics has shown that carrying such a load, coupled with physical inactivity (such as sitting for long periods in class or in front of a computer), can lead to pain and discomfort.

You can enhance your carrying power through strengthening your body (and mind). Indeed, data collected at California Polytechnic State University indicates that students who exercise 3–6 days a week had far less back pain than others. (Those who exercised more or less than that had more pain, emphasizing the importance of moderation.)

Back-boosting tips can be found in the FitnessU section, which this month features explanations of the benefits and techniques of yoga, an effective way to enhance back strength and flexibility.

More Back-Saving Tips

  • Figure out what is essential. What does your day truly require you to carry? Emily S., a senior at Radford University in Virginia, suggests: “Carry a lighter load and make more trips to your car or dorm room. This helps increase physical activity and puts less strain on the back.”
  • Consider removing the heaviest items in your bag, such as large binders and notebooks. Instead, carry relevant notes in a folder and some blank paper.
  • At the end of each day, sort papers into larger binders for each class. This is a great time to also review notes!
  • Limiting laptop days can take a huge burden off your back and help minimize distractions during class. Ashley W., a junior at the University of Maryland-College Park, points out, “Instead of carrying your own laptop, take advantage of technology resources on campus.”
  • Consider an e-reader or tablet computer instead of hard-copy books. E-books are often less expensive.
  • Traditional backpacks with supportive and balanced shoulder straps are much better than a simple shoulder or cross-body bag. Use all straps available to distribute the weight evenly and stabilize the bag.
  • A rolling bag or backpack, adjusted properly for your height, can be a good option.
  • Melody Y., a senior at Rice University in Texas, notes, “A lot of people bike around campus. Install a bike rack to [carry] your backpack so you can give your back a few minutes of relief.”

Get help or find out more

Contact your Health Service for more about preventing back pain.

American Occupational Therapy Association’s Backpack Awareness Resources

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’s Back Pain Prevention Web site


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