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High-heeled shoes are a fashion statement for many women. They define the calf muscle, make legs appear longer, and cause the buttocks to protrude slightly. While most women who wear high-heeled shoes know that they’re not the most supportive footwear option, a new study shows that they have a much more profound effect than previously thought. Published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, a recent study shows that high-heeled shoes change the mechanics of walking in a habitual user, even when the user is walking barefoot .
According to the researchers, it’s known that habitual use of high-heeled shoes has physical consequences, including shortening of the medial gastrocnemius (part of the calf muscle), and stiffening of the Achilles tendon that runs from the bottom of the calf to the heel. The purpose of the new study was to investigate whether these physical changes had physiological consequences.
Participants in the study were habitual high-heeled shoe wearers who had worn shoes with 2-inch or higher heels, 40 or more hours a week, for at least 2 years. These participants were compared to a control group of women who wore high-heeled shoes no more than 10 hours per week. The researchers measured a variety of forces, muscle lengths, and joint kinematics while women from both groups walked at self-selected paces.
There were several important findings of the study. First, walking in high-heeled shoes causes significant muscle strain as compared to walking barefoot. Second, habitual high-heeled shoe users exhibited higher muscle activation than non-users even when walking barefoot. This decreases the efficiency of walking and increases the likelihood of muscle strains in habitual high-heeled shoe users relative to women who don’t regularly wear high-heeled shoes.
The finding that regular wearers of high-heeled shoes experience leg and foot discomfort and fatigue isn’t new or surprising, nor is it surprising that walking in high-heeled shoes is less efficient than walking in flat shoes or barefoot. However, regular wearers of high-heeled shoes — particularly those who enjoy an active lifestyle outside of the workweek — may wish to consider the effect of their footwear choice on the efficiency of their stride and on the likelihood of injury.
- Cronin et al. Long-term use of high heeled shoes alters the neuromechanics of human walking. J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jan 12. [Epub ahead of print]