Are you one of those people who wears high heels so much that you put them on to walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Well then you might want to send a note of apology to your calves, because you could be fucking them up big time.
Besides the fact that they're often incredibly painful to walk in, a new study, published in the The Journal of Applied Physiology, has found that wearing high heels regularly can significantly alter the biomechanics of your legs. Well, that's certainly not an ideal attribute in a shoe.
The study was done on a group of women in their late teens through early thirties. Nine of the women had worn heels at least 40 hours each week for two years or longer. Ten of the women hardly ever wore heels. They had the two groups wear sensors on their legs, and walk up and down a walkway that gauged the force generated by their steps.
What the scientists found was that the women who wore heels regularly walked different from those who didn't, even when they weren't wearing their heels. They took "shorter, more forceful strides" than the control walkers—which must be why people in towering heels look like their strutting sexily. (Except when they clearly don't know how to walk in heels, and then they look like they're going to tip over.) The heel wearers also kept their toes pointed and their foot flexed. This form was seen even when they walked in barefoot. Measurements of their calf muscles found they were shortened, and their altered gait put far more strain on the calf muscles than it did in the women who preferred flats.
For those who opted for flats most of the time, walking mostly involved tendons stretching, not muscles. But the women in heels mostly used muscles to walk. Dr. Neil J. Cronin, one of the researchers, notes this is an important difference:
Several studies have shown that optimal muscle-tendon efficiency occurs when the muscle stays approximately the same length while the tendon lengthens. … Tendons are more effective springs than muscles.
So because they used more muscle, the heeled ladies were less efficient walkers—which anyone who's ever tried to cover a long distance quickly while wearing heels can tell you. Though this inefficiency even applies to the oft-heeled when they walk barefoot. It's sort of the same as when your mother told you not to make that terrible face because your face would get stuck like that, only for your feet—and not a lie.
Okay, but does it really make a difference if you use more muscle and less tendon? Fortunately for those of you seeking to justify your continued favoring of that one pair of black pumps that looks good with everything you own, the answer is uncertain. It's possible the muscle strain makes you more prone to injury, but for now they just don't know.
If you are a heel addict who wants to change your ways, Dr. Cronin suggests you start by reducing the number of days you wear punishing footwear each week. And take your shoes off a lot, like when you're at your desk. That allows your feet to spend time in a more natural state. If you are heel addict who doesn't care about your inefficient mode of walking and the potential damage you're doing to your precious legs, then by all means, carry on! Just don't come crying to us when you injure yourself and have to start walking around in those freaky finger shoes.
A Scientific Look at the Dangers of High Heels [New York Times]