Want A Stronger Core? New Research Says Consider A Backpack

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Teenage Girl Carrying a Backpack and Textbooks on a Yellow Background

Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy

Walking around with a near-empty backpack can feel awkward, but toting around a heavy bag can be both painful and exhausting. So which one is better? According to new research published in the American Journal of Health Education, a heavier backpack can improve core muscles and might lead to better physical health. 

A study conducted by kinesiologists at Rice University found wearing a backpack daily can increase core strength and endurance, giving kids who attend public school a health advantage. 

What did the researchers find?

Researchers compared data from 132 students between the ages of 12 and 17. Of the students, half were home-schooled, and the other half attended public school. 

Standardized physical fitness tests are required in the physical education (PE) curriculum of public schools but not in home schooling. For the sake of this study, though, home-schooled kids completed the assessments. 

The tests provide measurements for body mass index (BMI), as well as the ability to run for endurance, and perform a set amount of curl-ups and pushups. 

After comparing each group's results, researchers found home-schooled children did not show a significant difference in BMI, but they did have lower abdominal strength, endurance, and were less likely to meet the fitness requirements for number of pushups. 

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What does this mean for kids who are home-schooled?

These fitness deficits can be harmful to a child's future health, according to lead researcher Laura Kabiri, Ph.D. In order to prevent these risks, she encourages health professionals to intervene. 

"We need to do a better job as health professionals in reaching out to this community," Kabiri said. "They're very well intended, and very willing to learn about technique and proper forms for doing these exercises."

The findings negate prior research from Kabiri that said children who are home-schooled have no added physical health risks compared to their public school counterparts. They also somewhat contradict the idea that heavy backpacks are harmful to the body. 

So, how heavy should backpacks be?

The public school students were carrying backpacks that weighed up to 25% of their body weight, according to the research. The added weight is suspected to engage core-stabilizing muscles, improve core strength, and lead students to better perform curl-ups. But, Kabiri urges students to continue protecting their spines. 

"This is actually a hot topic in pediatric health and wellness and I don't want anyone to think we are encouraging students to carry heavy loads in their backpacks," she said.

Overly heavy backpacks can lead to musculoskeletal problems, including pain in the shoulders, neck, and back. According to the American Chiropractic Association, a backpack should not exceed 5 to 10% of a student's body weight.

This is especially important for children who are between 12 and 14 years old, as the spine is at a critical stage of development during those years. 

"However, we are hypothesizing that heavy backpack use among public schoolers could be one explanation for the difference in core strength seen in our study," Kabiri said. "Improper instruction and form for abdominal exercises among home-schoolers is another. This is why we as health and wellness professionals need to do a better job reaching out to the home-school community."

Prioritizing the health of adolescents is more important than ever before since one in five children are now prediabetic. By informing children of the benefits of exercise, as well as proper techniques, parents, teachers, and health care professionals can set students up for a healthier future. 

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