Science Scope

Wearing high heels alters one's barefoot gait, study says

Wearing high heels alters one's barefoot gait, study says

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High heels ... men love them, women love them, but our calf muscles? Not so much.

Deep down, we all probably knew that wearing high heels wasn't so good for our feet. But now we have the scientific evidence to prove it.

Along with two colleagues, Neil J. Cronin, a postdoctoral researcher at the Musculoskeletal Research Program at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, studied the gait of women who regularly wear high heels against that of women who normally don't.

Not only did they find a difference in the way the two groups of women walk, but they also found that the difference persisted even when the women who normally wear heels walked barefoot. And that difference radiated up the leg to affect the women's calf muscles.

The experiment

The researchers recruited nine young women who had worn high heels for at least 40 hours a week for two years or more, plus a control group of ten other young women who rarely wore high heels. The women ranged in age from their late teens to their early 30s.

Dr. Cronin and his colleagues outfitted the women with electrodes that tracked activity in the leg muscles and ultrasound probes that measured the length of the muscle fibers in their legs. The women also wore reflective markers that would allow the researchers to see how their bodies moved.

The scientists then equipped a 26-foot-long walkway with a plate that could measure the force of someone walking on it. The control group traversed the walkway ten times barefoot, while the high-heel aficionados walked it ten times in their favorite pair of heels and ten times barefoot.

The experiment showed that the women used to wearing high heels pounded the walkway more with each step and had a shorter stride. Their feet also were locked in a flexed position with the toes pointed -- even when they were barefoot. The researchers also found that the women's calf muscles were shorter and endured more strain than the control group's.

The flats-wearers, on the other hand, relied on their muscles less and used their tendons more to walk -- a more efficient technique. As Dr. Cronin told the New York Times,

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.

Essentially, those who wear heels expend more energy to cover the same amount of ground as people wearing flats.

Implications

Dr. Cronin believes that people who wear high heels regularly will have an increased chance of strain injuries, because of the stress on their muscles. (This doesn't even include the higher risk they have of spraining their ankles while teetering and tottering about in their stilettos.)

Because their feet and muscles retain the flexed position even when they're not wearing heels, these women also bear a higher risk of injury while exercising and wearing sneakers, which he called "a novel environment" for feet not used to remaining flat on the ground.

Because the women in the study were young (average age 25), Dr. Cronin says that one does not have to wear high heels for years before they'll affect one's gait.

And, as any woman will tell you, you in fact only have to wear them a few hours to feel the difference.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

photo: d u y g u/Flickr

via: The New York Times

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure