High heels can be a health risk. I should know, as someone who once ran to catch a train in heels and ended up with a stress fracture at the bottom of my foot. But it’s not just freak accidents like that and temporary discomfort that these beautiful shoes can bring. According to recent research, high heel pain can follow you for the rest of your life.
A study of nearly 3,500 men and women over the age of 66 found that more than 60 percent of women reported wearing high heels or other similarly unsupportive shoes (like sandals and pumps) most of the time when they were younger. Not surprisingly, only 2 percent of men reported wearing unsupportive shoes.
Those women who spent a lot of time in heels were more than 50 percent more likely to report currently experiencing hindfoot, ankle, and Achilles’ tendon pain than women who typically wore sneakers. But another study suggests that this kind of damage doesn’t take decades of high heel wearing to develop. In fact, regularly wearing high heels can actually change your foot and ankle positioning relatively quickly, with lasting effects on your gait (how you walk) and your body.
This small-scale study involved nine women who reported wearing high heels for at least 40 hours a week and for a minimum of two years and 10 control women who rarely ever wore heels. All of the women were in their late teens, 20s or early 30s, for a average age of 25.
The researchers fitted all of the women with electrodes to track leg-muscle activity, motion-capture reflective markers to record their movement, and ultrasound probes to measure the length of muscle fibers in their legs. The control group walked down a 26-foot-long walkway with a plate that gauges the force generated by their walking 10 times. The high heel wearers walked down the same runway in their favorite heels 10 times, then 10 more times barefoot.
Results showed that non-heel wearers primarily used their tendons to walk, while heel wearers relied more on their muscles and took shorter, more forceful strides. What’s more, the heel wearers walked the same way in flats, with their feet and toes flexed and pointed. This way of walking lead to the fibers in their calf muscles becoming shortened.
Because tendons spring back better than muscles after being stretched, they are more effective to use in walking. So, high heel walkers had to exert more energy to walk, leading to increased muscle fatigue. And because the heel wearers’ calf muscles were also shortened, the strain on their muscles was even greater, increasing the risk for injury.
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