It can be hard to get out of the house in the morning, so it’s tempting to essentially take its contents with you, tossing everything you think you may need later into your purse. But toting makeup, reading material, gym shoes, and hefty electronic devices has led to more women complaining of neck and shoulder pain, according to doctors, physical therapists, and chiropractors from coast to coast. “Many patients don’t realize that their heavy handbags are contributing to their problems,” says Heidi Prather, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis. Learn how to travel lighter and discover new ways to save your spine. Follow these easy steps to drop some pounds.
Watch Your Weight
Your bag, ideally, should weigh no more than 10 percent of your body weight or 10 pounds, whichever is less. A quick way to gauge if you’re carrying too much? Hold your bag in one hand and a gallon of milk in the other. “The bag shouldn’t weigh much more than the jug,” says Prather. (One gallon weighs 8.3 pounds.) To shed some weight, you’ll need to make some tough decisions. Do you really need your cell phone, spare shoes, full makeup kit, and novel all the time? “On some days, leave at least one of those at home or perhaps tucked in the glove compartment or an office drawer,” says Prather.
2 of 6Hallie Burton
Minimize Your Makeup
“If you’re hauling around your entire vanity, it’s time to pare down. Your on-the-go kit should contain just the key items you need for touch-ups,” says makeup artist and author Bobbi Brown, who’s known for her minimalist approach. For most women, that means carrying a small pouch with concealer, pressed powder, blush, and a single lipstick or gloss. “If you have to rifle through your bag to find your makeup, you’re probably carrying too much of it,” says Brown.
3 of 6Yunhee Kim
“At the end of every day, take one minute to remove unnecessaries from your handbag,” says organization expert Donna Smallin, author of The One-Minute Organizer ($11, amazon.com). If you wait until the end of the week, it will take more time. And before you know it, you will have amassed a dozen receipts, a handful of pens, a few dollars’ worth of loose change, and a half-full water bottle or two. “That can add up to a pound of stuff you don't need,” says Smallin.
Choose a Smart Style
The best way to avoid pain is to keep the weight of your bag centered on your body. Imagine that your spine is a stack of blocks. If you carry a heavy load on one side, whether on your shoulder or in one hand, those blocks—your vertebrae—get yanked into a column that’s not neatly balanced. “Your body makes accommodations to bear the weight, which means muscles and ligaments become unbalanced, then your posture shifts, resulting in tension that builds up over time,” says Mary Ann Wilmarth, a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapist Association and the director of the physical-therapy program at Northeastern University, in Boston. “The safest carryall is a small, light backpack,” Wilmarth says, “since it encourages you to keep your shoulder blades pulled back and down.”
If a backpack isn’t your style, opt for a messenger bag with a long, adjustable strap. That will allow you to distribute the weight of the bag between one shoulder and the opposite hip, and you can wear it close to your body. Before you even start loading the bag with your stuff, consider its size and material, as well as its bells and whistles. Even if you don’t carry much, many leather styles are heavier empty than are lightweight nylon, cotton, or canvas ones. “If you want a huge bag with lots of pockets and buckles, I won’t try to talk you out of it,” says Prather, “but you should be even more vigilant about what you put inside.” If you carry a computer and lots of paperwork and you don’t want a backpack, consider a rolling bag.
4 of 6James Merrell
Divide and Conquer
“It’s easier on your back and neck if you carry two five-pound bags, one in each hand, than one 10-pounder,” says Patrice Winter, a physical therapist and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Also, make use of pockets when you can. “If you can put your sunglasses and keys in a coat pocket and clip your cell phone to your belt, you’ve reduced the weight of the bag hanging off your shoulder by as much as a half pound,” says Winter.
Change Things Up
“It’s natural to hang your purse from your nondominant side so your preferred hand is always free,” says Cynthia Vaughn, a spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association and a chiropractor in Austin, Texas. But over time this may create imbalances. “To avoid developing aches and pains, switch your bag from one side to the other every 10 minutes or so,” says Vaughn. “Alternate the purse you carry, too, as changing the style of bag you carry from day to day can prevent pain.”
5 of 6Yunhee Kim
Make a conscious effort to keep both shoulders pulled down and level. “Many women instinctively lift and tense the shoulder that has the handbag on it,” says Prather. This only exacerbates the tendency to have short, weak muscles between the shoulder blades, which can be the first to flare up. If you talk on your cell phone while carrying a bulky bag, your neck and back will be doubly stressed by the ear-to-shoulder muscle tension. A wireless headset for walking and talking is a better option.
Stretch It Out
When you do feel tension in your neck, shoulders, or back, don’t ignore it. “Take a minute to put the bag down and stretch. If you can’t, at least try to switch positions,” says Prather. Remove the bag from your shoulder and hold it cradled in your arms, like a sack of groceries, for a few minutes. After a long walk with a heavy bag, you should stretch the muscles that run along the sides of your neck. Vaughn suggests this quickie: Look forward and place your right hand on the upper-left-hand side of your head. Gently pull your head down and toward the right, as if you’re trying to make your right ear touch your shoulder. (Go only as far as feels comfortable, and don’t jerk your neck.) Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side. Do this several times throughout the day to keep the muscles limber and to reduce the chance that stiff muscles will lead to a tension headache.
6 of 6Ericka McConnell
Don’t Put Up With Pain
“If your neck, shoulders, and back are aching at the end of the day, place an ice pack on the sore spots for about 10 minutes,” says Vaughn. The cold will slow the nerve impulses in the area and thwart the spasm-and-pain cycle. You’re better off sticking with ice rather than using a heating pad. “Heat might feel better at first, but it will add to the inflammation,” says Vaughn. A dose of ibuprofen can also help reduce inflammation that’s causing a stiff or sore neck or back. If problems persist or get worse, consult a doctor or a physical therapist.