Wearing Heels Can Change Your Feet and Your Walk

For those who have worn heels they know that it can be physically taxing.  We are finally glad to see in writing what we have been telling our clients for years: that the physical discomfort can extend to more than just pain in the feet and the legs, but also contributes to back pain, knee pain and hip issues.  A recent article in the New York Times is now helping to shed light on research that proves that wearing heels can also affect a person’s gait.  Here’s the gist:

It was obvious, as the scientists had suspected watching the woman during their coffee break, that the women habituated to high heels walked differently from those who usually wore flats, even when the heel wearers went barefoot. But the nature and extent of the differences were surprising. In results published last week in The Journal of Applied Physiology, 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.

In essence this means that the type of muscular pattern to stay balanced while walking in heels continues while walking with out.  Not good.  The inability to put down that particular pattern while walking barefoot may put unnecessary stress on the feet, calves, thighs, knees or hips, but is indicative of a deeper issue.  The feet are made of up 26 bones and many joints.   One should be able to walk using all of those bones and joints to navigate the ground, gravity and allow for a muscularly/energetically efficient gait.  Sound familiar, remember this post? The women in this study are stuck in a pattern that causes imbalanced muscle and joint work even while barefoot.  Through habit their feet’s ability to adapt to a changing environment (shoes and terrain) has been limited with the potential to cause more problems later.  As the scientists explain:

“Several studies have shown that optimal muscle-tendon efficiency” while walking “occurs when the muscle stays approximately the same length while the tendon lengthens. When the tendon lengthens, it stores elastic energy and later returns it when the foot pushes off the ground. Tendons are more effective springs than muscles,” he continues. So by stretching and straining their already shortened calf muscles, the heel wearers walk less efficiently with or without heels, he says, requiring more energy to cover the same amount of ground as people in flats and probably causing muscle fatigue.

See why it’s important to be able to exchange one pattern of movement for another in any given situation?  We know that the heel wearers’ joints are typically imbalanced, because of the necessary over use of certain muscle groups to stay upright.  For instance, because the Achilles tendon and calf muscles are so shortened -because of the height of the heel- the ankle joint does not move through the same healthy range of motion it would if one were walking barefoot.  When wearing heels the ankle joint is confined to a very limited range of motion and being stuck there can cause problems.  For example, some walkers may  feel discomfort when trying to make the switch and may end up with overworked lower leg muscles, tighter hips and soar soles.  


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.”

It should be noted, he adds, that in his study, the volunteers “were quite young, average age 25, suggesting that it is not necessary to wear heels for a long time, meaning decades, before adaptations start to occur.”

The good news is that since it takes so little time to create the habit, with consistent work one could begin to undo the pattern and start to feel relief relatively soon.  Their advice:

Wear high heels maybe “once or twice a week,” he says. And if that’s not practical or desirable, “try to remove the heels whenever possible, such as when you’re sitting at your desk.”

We also recommend rehabing your feet after you’ve worn the heels.  Especially, if one insists on wearing heels quite often, it is essential to rehabilitate the feet and legs with exercises that increase awareness of how we articulate through each joint, help repattern muscle use and return balance to joints. This is the only way to prevent pain and injury in the future.  To learn just how to do this contact us!