How many moms and dads on any given school day lift those jammed school bags and say, "What are you carrying around in there?"
Equipped with a bathroom scale and a reporter's snoopy — I mean inquisitive — attitude, I headed for Oak Park's Brooks Middle School to find out just how much poundage the students were carrying and to try and figure out if they really needed all that stuff. (See our photos of some of the kids here.)
I got there just in time to welcome the kids arriving early for band practice. Many carried separate, heavy instrument cases (not included in the weigh-in), and a few had gym bags and lunch bags (also not weighed), plus their bulging backpacks.
These are big loads, but especially for some of the younger, smaller kids. And when I learned that some of these kids walked blocks with their bulging loads to get there — phew.
Well aware of the problem, principal Tom Sindelar says students don't haul all this to class. Mini cinch sack backpacks are provided and the big packs aren't allowed in classrooms.
Here's some good news: "As far as we know, there's no link between heavy backpacks and permanent injury or damage to the spine," says Dr. Jeffrey Mjaanes, a pediatric and adult sports medicine specialist at Rush University Medical Center. However, "They do seem to cause shoulder pain and back pain."
Mjaanes says nobody has figured out how much is too much for kids to carry. But professional medical groups recommend a maximum of 10 to 20 percent of body weight. Mjaanes says he sees four or five teens for back pain every day and "carrying heavy loads" is a major factor.
More good news: Only three of 30 kids in my weigh-in had backpacks heavier than 20 percent of their body weight.
By the numbers30: Number of kids in the backpack weigh-in
13.7 pounds: Weight of average backpack
29.5 pounds: Heaviest backpack
5 pounds: Lightest backpack
13.1 percent: Average backpack weight as percentage of body weight
34.1 percent: Highest as percentage of body weight
4.5 percent: Lowest as percentage of body weight
How to lighten upAt the store:
Buy smallest possible bag that will hold your stuff
Choose fabric or paper lunch bag, not metal lunchbox
Shop for heavy padding on straps; waist straps, too, for heaviest days
Check empty weight before purchase; it will only get heavier
Buy folders instead of heavy binders
Back experts' advice:
Remove what you don't need every night before bed
Use online books at home; leave heavy texts at school or splurge on extra copies of heaviest books to keep at home
Use both shoulder straps, not just one
Ignore peer pressure and use backpacks with wheels
Put heaviest objects at bottom and closest to your back
Adjust straps so load sits low on the back, 1 to 2 inches above waist