Let me paint a familiar scene. I bet you’ve seen it as often as I have. Kids walking down the street, slouched over, because they have a backpack overloaded with books.

Have you ever picked one of those up? It’s enough to give you a hernia. Perhaps you have wondered, as I have, if it’s good for them.

Well, guess what? A new study shows that heavy backpacks in the teen years may mean lifelong back pain.

Researchers looked at 1,500 children – at their weight and the weight of their backpacks. To do this, each child dressed up in one of those hideous hospital gowns to get their weight and height correct. Then they donned their regular clothes complete with their keys, cellphones, jewelry, iPods and all the accruements of the teen life (by the way, this added about five pounds to their wardrobe). Then came the backpack.

The report (trumpets please): The average backpack was about 16 pounds. To give you an idea of how much that is, it’s like carrying two gallon milk jugs on your back. I call that heavy.

Now here’s the clincher – for many of these teens, that’s about 10 percent to 25 percent of their body weight. I call that a burden that might be detrimental for the developing teen body. And that’s exactly what the researchers found.

One in four teens complained of back pain for weeks at a time. The heavier the backpack was, compared to the teen weight, the more likely they had back pain.

My spin: Chronic back pain in adults is one of the most common complaints that I and many other doctors see in our office. Perhaps, just perhaps, heavy backpacks might be one risk factor.

Many of my physician colleagues will argue, rightfully so, that this is just one study. You really can’t generalize from this. It’s too soon to tell.

But if I take off my doctor hat and put on my parent hat, I have a different opinion. See how heavy your child’s backpack is. See if they’re slouching. Ask them about back pain. Take action. Figure out how much stuff they really need to carry to get those As in school.


Dear Dr. Paster: My son is overweight. He hits the Web when he comes home from school and never exercises. My husband and I like to walk when the weather is nice. We’d like to walk with him but he balks. What to do? – Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated Mom: Pull the plug. I recommend a technology-free night once every week or two. That means no computer, no TV, no movies, no video games, no cellphone, no texting, landline off the hook. In this age of electronic distraction, it’s sometimes hard for a parent to get a child’s attention, especially when they’re texting at the dinner table.

I would make this tech-free night a special, fun activity you’ll all enjoy. Fun family activities are those bonding times that make parenting awesome – for you and your kid.

Stay well!

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a popular radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WNED.