Very large bags have been fashionable for a while, but can be heavy before you even start to put all your stuff them, and they could be damaging your spine and shoulders.
It’s not just women who should think about what they are carrying and how. The popularity of manbags for carrying laptops and gym kit means men should also be aware of potential problems.
Four out of five people suffer lower back pain at some point during their lives. Bags and shoes are the cause of most of his female client’s problems, says chiropractor Rishi Loatey, from the British Chiropractic Association.
How can you choose a bag that enhances your personal style – but isn’t going to give you a health problem?
How much does your laden bag weigh? It’s probably more than you think when you factor in a phone, umbrella, make-up pouch, a purse or wallet stuffed with credit and store cards, and possibly a water bottle, a book and your lunch. Then you might have a laptop, tablet or e-reader. And shoes to change into at work, or trainers to wear home after a night out in heels.
A commonly quoted principle is that your bag shouldn’t be more than ten per cent of your body weight. But the way you carry the bag is as important as its weight, says Rishi, so ideally you should carry as little as possible.
He often asks female clients if they really need everything they’re carrying in their bag: “The answer’s always yes, but really, water, umbrella, novel, all the time?”
You could keep items such as make-up at the office or in the glove compartment of your car. And taking a few minutes to clear out your bag when you get home every day will stop the accumulation of everyday detritus like snacks, pens and receipts.
The healthy way to carry a bag is close to the body so that your spine is straight. A heavy weight on one side means you are out of balance and the resulting tension leads to problems in the neck, upper back and shoulders.
Symptoms may include pain in the arms, where nerves are irritated, headaches and pins and needles.
“People over 50 tend to put up with it because they feel they should expect aches and pains and stiffness as they get older,” says Rishi. “There can be a ‘What do you expect at your age?’ attitude, even among medical practitioners.
“My reply is ‘But what about the side that’s not giving you trouble? That’s as old as the other side!’”
If you already have a problem with your back, a chiropracter such as Rishi can use hands-on treatment to gently restore movement and stretch tight muscles. They identify and aim to remove the cause of the tightness or pain, and provide exercises to strengthen weak areas.
But far better, of course, to prevent the problem in the first place, and choosing the right bag is a factor.
A rucksack is ideal, says Rishi, because the two straps even out the weight across the back, and you’re able to keep your shoulders pulled back and down.
If a backpack isn’t your style, he suggests a satchel-type bag with an adjustable strap that can be worn across the body. The bag stays close to the body and the weight is distributed between your shoulder and opposite hip. Regularly alternate the side you wear it on.
For example, the Sway cross-body bag from Village England, whose bags have a uniquely English sense of style, has a wide-bottomed ‘A’ shape that fits comfortably against the body yet is deceptively spacious.
Rishi advises against constant use of a shoulder bag because it makes the wearer instinctively tense and raises the shoulder. Somerset-based leather goods manufacturer Owen Barry produces a number of designs, such as the Woodie, which can be worn three ways: as a backpack, cross-body or shoulder bag, to vary the load.
This fifth-generation family business is known for its signature jewel colours, and supplies leading retailers such as Anthropologie, J Crew and Paul Smith. Individual customers can buy from a local stockist or order bespoke bags in their choice of leather, suede or cowskin.
If you like a handbag with short handles, Rishi suggests you carry it hanging down from your hand, and switch sides regularly. Hanging it in the crook of the elbow may be good for the Queen, but she has staff to carry her stuff!
Rishi suggests a structured bag rather than a soft, slouchy one as the inner compartments hold contents securely so that they don’t shift around as you walk. There’s also less awkward twisting and bending to rummage in the bag to find things.
But beware of stiff leather and extraneous hardware, he warns. Studs, locks, tassels and bag charms may look good, but tend to make you carry the bag further away from your body, which puts more strain on your back and muscles. Soft leather or nylon is more accommodating to the body.