The Tall Toll of High Heels

Walking in High Heels Changes How Women Walk, Puts Strains on Muscles, and Raises Risk of Injury

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 27, 2012

Jan. 27, 2012 -- An obsession with wearing high heels may take a toll on women’s muscles as well their pocketbooks.

A new study offers a scientific explanation for why walking in high heels can be so painful: It changes the basic mechanics of how women walk.

The results show that women who regularly wear high heels walk with shorter, more forceful strides and recruit more muscles to walk, compared to women who favor flats. These changes persist even when the women kick off their heels and go barefoot.

“This represents a potential injury risk, and may partly explain the fact that high-heeled shoes are often associated with discomfort and muscle fatigue,” researcher Neil Cronin, PhD, of the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, and colleagues write in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

High Heels Change How Women Walk

Researchers looked at how walking in high heels affected the mechanics of walking in nine young women who wore high heels for 40 hours per week or more for at least two years, compared with 10 young women who rarely wore high heels.

All of the women walked at their own pace along a 26-foot, flat walkway while wearing electrodes on their feet and legs to measure muscle activity. The walkway was also equipped with a plate to gauge ground reaction forces, and cameras recorded their gait.

Both groups walked down the walkway 10 times in their bare feet. Then the high heel wearers walked it another 10 times in their favorite high heels.

As the researchers had suspected, the women who regularly wore high heels walked differently than those who didn’t, even when they were in their bare feet.

The results showed that the high heel wearers had shorter strides and mostly used their muscles to walk rather than the more efficient combination of muscle and tendon stretching employed by the women who wore flats.

Because their feet were stuck in a flexed, toes-pointed position for so long, the calf muscles of the women who wore high heels had also shortened and were under more strain.

For example, the study showed the muscle strain rate in high heel wearers was about six times higher than in the other women.

Researchers say these sorts of adaptations from long-term high heel use may compromise muscle efficiency in barefoot and high heeled-walking and increase the risk of injuries.