Women's health

Your high heel habit is warping your walk

Jan. 25, 2012 at 4:05 PM ET

Francois Mori / AP /
Participants of the Sarenza High Heel 2010 Race prepare to compete in the France Vs UK 3x60 meters relay race at Molitor swimming pool in Paris, on Dec. 3, 2010.

If you're a woman reading this from a cubicle (and, judging by what we know about our readers, you probably are), chances are your feet are currently squished into a pair of high heels. You may swear although they look painful, they're "so comfortable!" Sorry, your feet aren't buying it.

A new study suggests that the shoes you love are putting you at risk for muscle injury, even when you walk barefoot.

When you wear a high-heeled shoe, your foot is forced into a plantar-flexed position. In other words, you're pointing your toes as long as you've got the shoes on. Imagine Barbie feet.

Day after day of teetering in towering heels appears to shorten fibers in the calf muscle, and make the Achilles tendon stiffen instead of flex with each step, a new study published last week in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests. (You can access the abstract here, but you'll have to pay to read the whole thing.) Both of these factors may contribute to muscle fatigue, and potential injury. 

In this study, researchers analyzed the way longtime high-heel lovers used their muscles to walk across the room, both with their heels and without, and compared their gait to that of women who generally wore flats. The nine habitual high heel wearers had worn heels of at least 5 centimeters (that's just under 2 inches) at least 40 hours every week for at least two years; the 10 control participants usually wore heels for less than 10 hours each week. 

The heels devotees tended to walk in that perpetually flexed-foot way, even when they walked barefoot. "The results suggest that long-term high heel use may compromise muscle efficiency in walking, and are consistent with reports that high heel wearers often experience discomfort and muscle fatigue. Long-term high heel use may also increase the risk of strain injuries," write the authors, led by Dr. Neil J. Cronin, currently a researcher at Finland's University of Jyvaskyla.

Cronin spoke with The New York Times' Gretchen Reynolds, explaining the risk of injury that high heel wears may not even know they're taking. 

The risks extend to workouts, when heel wearers abruptly switch to sneakers or other flat shoes. “In a person who wears heels most of her working week,” Dr. Cronin says, the foot and leg positioning in heels “becomes the new default position for the joints and the structures within. Any change to this default setting,” he says, like pulling on Keds or Crocs, constitutes “a novel environment, which could increase injury risk.”

Interestingly, the average age of the study participants was just 25, suggesting that these calf muscle changes can happen fast, and at a much younger age than previous studies have indicated. But we know better than to try to convince you to ditch the heels. Instead, try to limit the number of days you wear high heels to just a couple times a week, instead of Monday through Friday. We wearers of flats will warmly welcome you back down to our level.

How many days a week do you wear high heels? Does news of the damage it may be doing to your muscles make you want to cut back? Share your opinion on Facebook