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Back to school with healthy backs and healthy bellies

Yes, the back-to-school season is here already, and with it comes the recommendation that kids watch their backs, their backpacks that is.

"One of the biggest concerns at least for me as a spine surgeon is if the patients are carrying so much weight, and it's not properly stationed and equally distributed across their back and their shoulders," said Dr. Jocelyn Idema, a spine surgeon with the Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics in Frederick, where she frequently treats children complaining of neck and back pains.

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Kids and parents both may gravitate toward cool, stylish backpacks in their back-to-school shopping, Idema said, but "they are not really functional. We really need backpacks that look more like a hiking backpack: They have a chest strap in addition to the shoulder straps, and they have a waist strap, so they can evenly distributed all of the weight."

While people were out and about in Saturday's heat to work on back-to-school shopping, many had plans to head back out next week as Maryland Tax-Free Week takes effect.

It is recommended that students carry no more than 10 percent of their body weight in a backpack, Idema said, and that the heaviest objects be centered in the middle of the bag. Bags should also be worn as high as possible, rather than dragging around the buttocks, she said.

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Beyond selecting a backpack with proper supports and not overloading it with materials, Idema said it is important for parents to discuss the topic with their children.

"The biggest problem, even with the backpacks that have all those straps, is compliance," she said. "The kids are just going to throw it over one shoulder and off they go. That's going to put a lot of weight on one side as opposed to both sides of the back."

In the case where a child develops a problem, a recurring neck or back strain for instance, Idema recommends seeing a doctor and getting a note to take to the school in order to request an accommodation.

"I do write those types of notes: 'Please allow the child extra time between classes to utilize their locker more efficiently'; 'Is there a way to obtain, at least for a short period of time, books for the home and books for the class so the patient is not dragging them back and forth to every class?' " she said.

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While thinking of the health of student's backs, parents should also consider the health of their stomachs, according to Carroll Hospital Community Nutrition Educator Melanie Berdyck.

"Make sure healthy heating is a family endeavor," she said. "Go to the store together, pick out a different food each week. It's fun for kids to try a new food or veggie each time they go to the store to expand their horizon."

Making sure to pack lunches with nutrient dense food will give kids the fuel they need to get through the school day, Berdyck said, and some simple substitutions to certain classics can make them a whole lot healthier.

"Peanut butter and jelly is just fine, depending on if the school allows you to have peanut butter, but try going from white bread to a whole grain bread or whole grain pita," she said. "People even use apple butter or some different variations of that. One little change could actually create a whole new lunch."

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