A study released last week in the Journal of Applied Physiology revealed that women who habitually wear high heels are at risk for permanent physiological damage to their knees, hips, back and tendons -- and damage can be seen in women as young as 25 years old. That's because high heels force the wearer to place all of her body weight on the ball of the foot, compromising stability. This, in turn, makes her compensate for the instability by pushing her knees and hips forward and arching her back -- an unnatural posture. What's more, that changed gait remains even when the heel wearer removes her shoes. Reported the New York Times:
The scientists found that heel wearers moved with shorter, more forceful strides than the control group, their feet perpetually in a flexed, toes-pointed position. This movement pattern continued even when the women kicked off their heels and walked barefoot. As a result, the fibers in their calf muscles had shortened and they put much greater mechanical strain on their calf muscles than the control group did.
"This is very familiar, it's nothing new -- we learned about it in medical school," says Dr. Jacqueline Sutera, a doctor of podiatric medicine and surgery in Manhattan and New Jersey who sometimes wears heels. She adds that heels can also permanently shorten tendons and ligaments, including the all important Achilles' tendon, which connects the heel to the calf. "It happens rather quickly -- you might not be symptomatic, but I will say that with every step, you're causing damage."
So what's a shoe-lover to do? While no heel is safe, there are some strategies for mitigating the ill effects of a love affair with stilettos:
1. Alternate Heights: If your tendon doesn't get acclimated to the same height every day, it won't shorten to a specific height, according to Sutera.
2. Stretch: Every day you wear heels (or, alternatively, every day -- why not?), sit in a chair and use a yoga band or twisted sheet slung around your foot. Pull the band towards you as you stretch your toes forward.
3. Use Commuter Shoes: Especially city commuters walk a great deal on their routes to work. Use a supportive flat shoe on the unforgiving concrete of the sidewalk and save those four-inch show-stoppers for the absorbant carpets and cork floors of the office.
4. Choose A Wedge: Any heel that offers more surface area is putting less stress on the ball of the foot, so go with a chunky heel, wedge or even a platform.
5. Add Orthotics: Even an over-the-counter shoe insole can make a tottering heel more stable -- and that can help its owner walk better.