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Healthy back-to-school tips from medical experts

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
back-to-school, cramming, backpacks, academic success, teen health

Labor Day signals the end of summer—and the start of another school year. Experts at UCLA Health system and New York University Medical Center have some tips that will aid scholars in their attainment of a healthy and productive school year. They note that toting around a heavy backpack and cramming for exams can impact a student’s health and academic achievement.

Dr. Jeff Goldstein, director of The Spine Service Division at New York University Medical Center, told Fox News that parents would be amazed by the average weight of backpacks He noted, “We have recommendations of about 10-15% of your body weight. So if your child is 100 pounds, that means [there should be] 10 to 15 pounds of weight in the backpack.” However, many students tote around much more. Many backpacks weigh 25 pounds or more; thus, they are toting double the recommended weight. Dr. Goldstein noted that that the weight can cause muscle problems because teenagers are still developing. He explained, “If they walk around hunched over or slouched over, they develop poor posture…and pain in their neck… Could it lead to degenerative changes? I suppose it could.” He added the pain could also make it harder for students to concentrate in school and at home.

Dr. Goldstein offers the following recommendations to avoid back strain:

  • Make sure the backpack has wide, padded shoulder straps
  • Tighten the straps so the bag is close to the body
  • Wear backpack straps on both shoulders
  • Remove unnecessary items that could add excess weight

In addition, he recommends that students can consider alternatives such as purchasing backpacks with wheels, keeping an extra set of textbooks at home, or even investing in new technology such as backpacks constructed of lightweight materials.

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Researchers at UCLA conducted a study to determine how students can boost their grades in a manner compatible with a healthy lifestyle. They caution that postponing studying for a big exam until the last minute and then embarking on a caffeine-fueled cram session is not the way to go. They published their findings online on August 20 in the journal Child Development

The researchers note that the problem with all night cram sessions before an exam is the trade-off between study and sleep. Obviously, studying is a key contributor to academic achievement; however, what students may fail to appreciate is that adequate sleep is also important for academics. Senior author Andrew J. Fuligni, a UCLA professor of psychiatry, and colleagues note that sacrificing sleep for extra study time, whether it is cramming for a test or plowing through a pile of homework, is actually counterproductive. They caution that regardless of how much a student generally studies each day, if that student sacrifices sleep time in order to study more than usual, he or she is likely to have more academic problems, not less, on the following day.

The study group was comprised of 535 Latino, Asian-American, and European-American students in each of the 9th, 10th, and 12th grades who were recruited from three Los Angeles area high schools. They were asked to record in a diary for a 14-day period how long they studied, how long they slept, and whether or not they experienced two academic problems: not understanding something taught the following day in class, or if they did poorly on a test, quiz, or homework. In all instances, the investigators found that study time became increasingly associated with more academic problems because longer study hours were increasingly associated with fewer hours of sleep. In turn, that predicted greater academic problems the following day.

Dr. Fuligni explains, “No one is suggesting that students shouldn’t study, but adequate amount of sleep is also critical for academic success. These results are consistent with emerging research suggesting that sleep deprivation impedes leaning.” He notes that students generally learn best when they keep a consistent study schedule. Although a steady pace of learning is ideal, the increasing demands that high school students face may make such a consistent schedule difficult. Socializing with peers and work, for example, both increase across the course of high school. So do academic obligations like homework that requires more time and effort. As a result, many high school students end up with irregular study schedules, often facing nights in which they need to spend substantially more time than usual studying or completing school work.

Dr. Fuligni notes, “The biologically-needed hours of sleep remain constant through their high school years, even as the average amount of sleep students get declines.” He explains that previous research has shown that in 9th grade, the average adolescent sleeps for 7.6 hours per night; then declines to 7.3 hours in 10th grade, 7.0 hours in 11th grade, and 6.9 hours in 12th grade. “So kids start high school getting less sleep then they need, and this lack of sleep gets worse over the course of high school.”

New York University Medical Center
UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine