Health

Your Work Bag Can Add More Stress Than Actual Work

In sixth grade, my mom and dad forced me to bring a rolling backpack to school.

Even though I was bullied constantly and claimed that a socially unacceptable rolling backpack would just give the other students more opportunities to be cruel, my parents said it was more important to take care of my postural health than blend in with the others. The hatred for roller backpacks is well-established in schools though, as shown in this short clip about why people can't stand them:

"If anyone laughs at you, just say they're going to have back problems in their twenties and you won't," my mom would tell me.

As you can imagine, that "comeback" was real effective on those mean-spirited kids. Even my math instructor often joked before recess, "Don't miss your flight, Laura!" It wasn't until a repeated harasser managed to kick a wheel off my backpack that my parents allowed me to embrace a regular JanSport like everyone else my age. By freshman year of high school, the book and homework load was light enough that I could use a single-strap bag, which followed me to college. It wasn't until I landed my first post-graduation job that my single-strap bag began to hurt, as I had to carry my computer five days a week. At 5' 5" and 130 pounds, that's a lot of weight on my lean build.

But half a decade later, it looks like all those years of lugging around my laptop took a toll on one side of my body.

I recently attended the 2015 West Coast ISPA Media Event, where a Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program representative provided me with a full postural analysis. As a writer who spends a lot of time sitting in front of a computer, has a "text neck" issue with smartphone overuse, and carries my laptop every day from point A to point B, I was expecting to hear I had the postural health of an 80-year-old woman.

As it turned out, I have Kyphosis-Lordosis Posture, the most common postural scenario:

My postural analysis

The Healthy Living Program associate also noted that my left shoulder, which I always use to carry my computer bag, is lower than my right, which is reserved for my purse:

My postural analysis

The average laptop weighs five pounds, and the average purse can weigh even more than that at 6.27 pounds, according to a 2012 study by StyleList. According to the American Chiropractic Association, this can be a bad combination for slender individuals who use a purse and laptop bag at the same time because "[c]arrying a bag with detectable weight -- more than 10 percent of your body weight -- can cause improper balance." I don't think my purse is that heavy, but I have put more items in it over time -- like a book, wallet, smart phone, smartphone charger, handful of pens, and Altoids.

Though it's certainly a major player, my computer bag isn't the only thing at fault for my physical imbalance. I also have Temporomandibular Joint Disorders (TMD), a jaw problem that has given me problems since adolescence, and uneven facial structure, which the Healthy Living Program rep said could impact my posture. I also tend to lean my head and chin forward, likely from all those years of looking closely at my computer screen.

Postural issues affecting young people.

Dr. Phil Hagen, who works in the Division of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., told ATTN: that the long-term postural issues young people face often stem from our ability to maintain imperfect posture for long periods of time.

"I would say it's either focusing on something where it's a game controller or a computer or small screen, therefore it's that rounded shoulders, neck forward kind of posture that they have," Dr. Hagen told ATTN:.

He says that our attention spans actually hurt our posture.

"Because young people are capable of pretty intense focus, they may do that for hours," Hagen said. "Since the spine is not in its neutral position, it tends to put a little stress on the spine, which puts pressure on things like the discs in between the spine and on some of the muscles and ligaments. It's not that they're doing damage, it's just that they're going to cause pain because they're holding [themselves] in that fixed position and that causes inflammation."

Intense focus and hunch

Hunched over

What to do if you frequently carry a single-strap laptop bag?

Dr. Hagen advises folks who carry laptop bags on one shoulder to swap shoulders from time to time so as not to overwork a single side of the body. He also said exercises like shrugs or bent over rolls can strengthen the trapezius muscles.

"Because muscles are paired and the body is fairly well balanced, [one thing] is to switch shoulders," Dr. Hagen said. "So if you have a heavy thing [to carry], just put it on your right shoulder and sometimes turn it around and put it on your left shoulder. The trapezii are holding your shoulders up, and so when you're carrying something on your shoulder, you're putting the trapezius on stretch, so exercises that strengthen the trapezius [will make them] much more resilient and more able to take the weight."

Everyone is a little uneven. That's not a problem.

Humans are attracted to symmetry, so Dr. Hagen understands that many people are self-conscious about being uneven, however, the health implications of this are much more alarming than appearing slightly off.

"We all have a little asymmetry, so if people notice they're a little asymmetric, they shouldn't freak out about it, especially when we're younger and have pretty intense body image [issues] and think 'God, we ought to be perfectly even,'" Dr. Hagen said. "But I think that the balance in terms of strength is important, so if you're right-handed, your right-sided muscles tend to be stronger. Muscles are paired around the joints --- your bicep bends the elbow and your tricep straightens the elbow --- so keeping paired muscles in balance is important. So whenever you go do an exercise, if you do a bicep exercise, you should do a tricep exercise."

Dr. Hagen's advice for laptop bag users is wonderful, but I'm going a step further and investing in a two-strap backpack to more evenly distribute the weight on my shoulders. As a 2004 French study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information found, "Carrying the backpack with two shoulder straps affects posture and gait less than carrying it on one shoulder."

It won't be as chic as a one-strap bag, but at least it's not as geeky as a rolling backpack.