Aching Shoulders? Why Your Purse May Be The Culprit

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Warm nights, cold cocktails, sunkissed weather — we couldn’t be more excited for the summer season. But, longer days, sweatier conditions, and more kickage with friends also means hauling more stuff with us when head out in the a.m. (It’s no coincidence that a study conducted by Kelley Styring, author of In Your Purse: Archaeology of the American Handbag and principal researcher for InsightFarm Inc, found that purse sales are highest in May, June, and July.) Between the oversized totes and carryalls that we stock for work, the gym, our social lives, and the personal purses we carry (stocked with everything from makeup to electronics), we’ve got a lot of stuff to haul. And, according to researchers, that ain’t good.
A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that hauling heavy bags caused nerve, muscle, and skeletal damage in its carriers. The study showed that the nerves that travel through the neck and shoulders were of particular risk, since carrying heavy bags was shown to cut their capacity and slow the muscles’ ability to do as the brain commands. So, if our brains are telling us to move our fingers or hand, for example, damaged nerves cause our muscles to lag out, resulting in a delay of movement. The study, which tested soldiers who carried heavy packs, also found that they reported numbness in the fingers due to heavy loads. Yikes.
Pound per pound, women may not carry as much gear as a soldier. But, we do tote a lot of stuff: The average American woman packs 67 items in her purse, according to Styring.
Nerve damage is just half of it, though. Indiana University researcher and occupational and environmental health expert Kevin Slates has studied the heavy-load phenomena in students. In his own 2007 survey, he found that more women reported pain in their backs and shoulders, due to the bags they carried for school, than men.
Women also said they were more likely to carry a single-strap style bag (vs. a backpack, which does a better job of distributing weight). This style correlated with self-reported pain. (Styring’s book reports that, indeed, 95 percent of women carry these types of bags.)
Slates says that based on his research and other similar studies, women who wish to avoid injury and chronic pain shouldn’t carry more than 10 to 15 percent of their body weight, though he notes that in his own study, subjects started to clock discomfort and pain when carrying bags just 11.25 percent of their own body weight.
“We only have one spine,” Slates says. “It’s very important we reduce the compressive forces in the spine as much as possible.”

Photo: Courtesy of J.Crew.

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But, before you throw out your “ultralight” laptop and its ultraweighty charger, consider these tips from organizational guru Julie Morgenstern, who has written five books on the topic, including Organizing From The Inside Out (which dedicates an entire chapter to purse and handbag organizing) and has appeared on shows like Oprah to help Americans lighten their load:
Pack For Plans, Not Options: If you start your day with every intention of hitting the gym only to find that half of the time, your workout gear goes unused, then it’s time to get real about the stuff you’re carrying.
“The reason our bag is so heavy is that we carry options with us,” Morgenstern says. “A lot of times, we’re loading our bag with items just in case — ‘just in case I go to the gym’ or ‘just in case so-and-so gives me a call. I haven’t made plans yet, but just in case.’ I think that if we just stopped that and packed things that we know we’re going to use, that would eliminate a lot of clutter in our bags.”
Use Your Office As A Locker Room: We spend about a third of our life at work, so we might as well make ourselves at home there, right? To minimize our load, Morgenstern recommends we move in a bit. “When it comes to things like the gym or going out at night, if you’re going to work first, store that stuff at work. There’s no need to schlep it home,” she says. She also suggests we keep our outfit upgrades (like a killer pair of heels or statement jewelry) at the cube farm too. “That way you do have your options without having to carry them,” she says.
Keep ‘Em Separated: The bag-within-a-bag phenomena has become more commonplace in the past few years, and according to Morgenstern, it’s a healthy habit. Take the clutch-tucked-inside-a-purse routine one step further by filling separate pouches for each need. Designate specific containers for gadget chargers, emergency gear (fashion and otherwise, like hand sanitizer, a hair tie, or a Band-Aid) and work stuff (like pens, business cards, and key cards). This will help balance the weight of your load more effectively and will stop you from carrying unnecessary items. “Multi-function bags attract a lot more clutter,” Morgenstern says. “With smaller, single-function bags, you’re less likely to start throwing everything in but the kitchen sink.”
Think Mini: Three-ounce items don’t just satisfy the TSA, they give your back and shoulders a break as well. After separating your things into smaller pouches, Morgenstern says, “look at the actual contents of each bag and go as small and light as possible for everything.” She points out that personal care products can really weigh a woman down. So, she suggests finding the smallest size comb to do the job and transferring foundations and hair care products, for example, to tiny containers that strictly hold the dollop of product you might need for the day.
Feel The Incredible Lightness of Being: Finally, don’t underestimate the power or paring down. Carrying less stuff will not only save our bodies, but it can free our minds as well. Morgenstern says that when it comes to carrying less, our bags are actually the best place to start — and the results can be surprisingly profound. “When you’re light on your feet and have everything you need and no more, it’s an incredibly powerful feeling,” she says. With an organized and downsized bag, she adds, “you’re ready to show up in your life. It has this effect of ‘I am ready. I am here. I am present.’ It’s a great feeling.”

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Photo: Courtesy of J.Crew.

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