x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Weighty problem for young pupils

Experts say the weight of school bags, particularly those in primary education, could result in irreparable damage to spines of schoolchildren.

It is far healthier for children to wheel or pull a bag rather than carry it on their shoulders. Many pupils are carrying bags well in excess of the recommended weight limit.
It is far healthier for children to wheel or pull a bag rather than carry it on their shoulders. Many pupils are carrying bags well in excess of the recommended weight limit.

ABU DHABI // Lilion Napfle, nine, takes a deep breath and braces herself before hoisting her bulging pink school bag, weighing 7.7kg, on to her slight, 28.6kg frame.

Although, like most youngsters, she insists the contents are all essential, struggling through the school day carrying a bag that is equivalent to 27 per cent of her bodyweight is putting her long-term health at risk. If she does not reduce the bag's weight by at least 3.41kg, to bring it within the recommended safe limit of 15 per cent of bodyweight, she could irreparably damage her spine over time, said Dr Pascal Grolaux, an osteopath at Al Rawdah German Medical Centre in the capital. The back specialist said Lilion was by no means alone in carrying school bags that were potentially dangerous.

"For the majority of children in all grades, we notice that the ratio between the bodyweight and the weight of the bag is just too high." Overly heavy bags were of particular concern regarding younger pupils, he said. "Young children have a lower body-weight and their heavy bags are almost always much more than 15 per cent of the child's weight." He said children such as Lilion ended up bending their necks forward to counteract the weight on their backs, which put an additional strain equal to seven to 14kg on their neck muscles.

"When children walk with this type of posture a lot, over time all this tension in the neck could lead to back problems like scoliosis or Scheuermann's disease," said Dr Grolaux. Scoliosis occurs when a person's spine becomes permanently twisted or curved, while Scheuermann's disease is a childhood skeletal disorder that can lead to a mild "hunch" in the upper back. During a recent awareness programme for pupils, organised by the German medical centre, two dozen fourth-grade students aged nine and 10 from the German International School (GIS) were involved in a study to see whether the weight of their bags was too high. The children's posture was also measured.

Eva Hoffman, a physiotherapist at the centre who conducted the awareness day, said the majority of students she saw were carrying bags in excess of the advised 15 per cent of bodyweight. "The weight of the school bags affects the way students angle their heads and necks, and they lean forward in a way that affects their posture negatively," she said. Michael Boehle, the head of the GIS primary school department and the deputy dean, welcomed the initiative.

"The children are in school until 3.30pm, and then there are activities after that. "They carry their bags around all day, and the bags are full of books, exercise equipment, lunches and all the things kids are convinced they can't live without. "Older students have lockers to lighten the load of their school bags, but the younger ones tend to bring everything, in case they forget something." Mr Boehle said that making teachers, students and parents understand the potential dangers would go a long way to addressing the problem. He said parents would be reminded that children, particular younger ones, are still growing, and that carrying too much weight could damage their spines.

That may be easier said than done. Most children are very attached to the things they haul around with them in their school bags. Lilion has had her pink and purple bag, which is covered with images of daisies and butterflies, since the first grade. It contains two large, matching pencil cases crammed full with pens, pencils, crayons, scissors and glue sticks, plus several books, and all the other paraphernalia that she insists she cannot leave out, despite the fact that many items are available at her school.

Her lunch, consisting of bottled water and Tupperware boxes of healthy food and snacks, is also tucked into the bag. Lilion's friend, Sophia Lauritsch, also nine, carries a bag that weighs in at almost 6kg. However, her sturdier 41.6kg build puts it at 14 per cent of her total body-weight, and within the safe limit. "The additional force that is placed on Sophia's neck is acceptable, and that is what we want to achieve with the rest of the children," said Dr Grolaux.

Whatever happens, it is highly unlikely that any students will be seen sporting the world's largest school bag, measuring three metres high by two metres wide, which was unveiled as part of a fashion company's marketing drive at the Dubai Mall last October. @Email:hkhalaf@thenational.ae Third editorial, page a19