If you’re like many women, your purse weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of six pounds—if not more. That overstuffed tote isn’t just getting in your way: It could actually be a danger to your health, says Dr. Sabrina Strickland, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
“When you carry a heavy bag on your shoulder, you kind of have to lift [your shoulder] or lean over to the other side, otherwise it’s going to fall right off,” Strickland says. “However long you’re holding that bag, you’re holding your spine in a curved way.”
That misalignment, Strickland says, can lead to pain in your back, neck, shoulders and muscles, joint strain and the worsening of problems like herniated disks. In children, it can even lead to scoliosis.
A small 2013 study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science also found that habitually carrying your bag on one side can even affect how you walk, leading the researchers to caution that “people who carry bags should avoid the habit of carrying them on only one side.”
Here’s how to carry your purse in a healthier way.
Carry two bags
By dispersing weight across both shoulders, Strickland says, you’ll avoid the asymmetry that can lead to problems. “It’s far better to carry two bags—one on each shoulder,” she says. “Split it up. Two evenly distributed bags is best.”
Lighten your load
The rule of thumb, as cited in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science study, says your purse should never exceed 10% of your body weight. (That means a 140-pound woman should never lug around more than 14 pounds in her bag.) Strickland recommends an even lighter threshold. “If you start to get around six or seven pounds,” she says, “I think you should start thinking about a second bag.”
You can weigh your purse just as you would luggage before a flight. USA Today recommends stepping on a scale alone, then holding your bag, and subtracting the first number from the second. This will ensure that all of the purse’s weight gets measured and will circumvent any calibration issues with the scale.
Think beyond the shoulder bag
A backpack is your best choice, ergonomically. A cross-body bag is slightly better than a shoulder bag, but could result in strain on your neck, Strickland says. If you do carry a shoulder bag, it can be helpful to periodically switch sides, to even things out.
Increase your core strength
Regardless of how heavy your purse is, having a strong center will help you stand up straight and avoid alignment issues, Strickland says. Be sure to add core-focused moves—including planks, sit-ups, oblique exercises and back exercises—into your workout routine. “Having good posture depends on core strength, and having good core strength allows us to have good posture,” Strickland says.