For some it’s about added height. For others, simple sex appeal. Still others can’t resist the latest fashion trend and will wear only the style that’s current — no matter how uncomfortable it is. Whatever the reason, we women love our high heels.
In fact, according to a survey by the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA), nearly half of all women wear high heels. And they are wreaking havoc on their bodies.
How High Heels Hurt Us
Despite our love of our Louboutins, that same APMA survey reports that 71 percent of us complain that our feet hurt in high heels — and the impact of wearing heels goes far beyond foot discomfort.
Imagine a plumb line hanging down from the top of your head to your heels, connecting your head, neck, spine, pelvis and ankles in one continuous, well-supported line. Now throw on a pair of heels. Suddenly that nice straight line gets thrown out of alignment.
“When you put your foot in a heel, your weight distribution gets shifted forward,” explains Dr. Jackie Sutera, a doctor of podiatric medicine, APMA spokesperson and health expert for Vionic Innovation Lab.
“So instead of your foot being planted flat on the ground like we’re intended to walk, your weight gets shifted to the ball of your foot.” In order to compensate for that, says Sutera, the knees and hips jut forward and the back hyperextends to counterbalance. “You’re walking around with your whole skeleton misaligned.”
This misalignment can lead to pain throughout the body, says Sutera. “While it may start in your feet, it can hurt and even damage your ankles, knees, hips, your back…. So it’s really your entire skeleton that is affected by the height of your heels.”
High, Thin and Every Day: A Dangerous Trio
Not surprisingly, the higher and thinner the heel, the worse it is for your foot, says Sutera. “Pumps and stilettos are probably the worst,” she says, as are shoes with a heel higher than two inches. Another no-no? Wearing high heels too often and for too long. “It’s not recommended to wear heels for long periods of standing or walking, nor should you wear them every day,” explains Sutera.
The shape of the toe box and the shoe material also play a role in creating a healthy heel (Hint: Pointy toes and stiff shoe material make matters worse). Despite her expertise, Sutera’s advice about the dangers of wearing three-inch stilettos every day often falls on deaf ears.
“Many people don’t want to hear it, but it really does catch up with you. In your twenties you’re kind of invincible, and this stuff doesn’t really bother you. But fast-forward to a few years later and some of the damage that can happen is irreversible.”
Healthier High Heels
In spite of all these warnings, you can still safely wear high heels without damaging your body. “I’m not the type of doctor that says don’t do it,” says Sutera. “I wear heels too. I’m the type of doctor that says do it in a smart way.” Here are four keys for healthier high-heel habits.
1) Choose a Safer Shoe
According to Sutera, there are three key elements any body-healthy shoe should have. “In a sensible shoe, you need shock absorption, cushioning and arch support. When you’re not getting that on a regular basis, you’re either going to cause an injury or make something that you are susceptible to, such as a bunion or hammertoe, worse.” In addition, according to the APMA, any high-heel shoe should have a heel that is two inches or shorter to decrease strain on the body.
Sutera recommends shoe styles like platforms and wedges as alternatives that provide a healthier way to get some height without the hurt.
“Even though you can get a little height with platforms and wedges, you can cheat because they have a greater surface area to distribute your body weight,” says Sutera. "So when you wear a wedge you’re not just balancing on that small stiletto. There’s more stability, and it’s not so bad for you.”
2) Plan Smarter
Keep your daily schedule in mind when you’re planning your footwear for the day. “If you know you’re going to be on your feet running around all day, don’t choose the stilettos,” says Sutera. Keep comfier commuter shoes in your purse or gym bag or two or three pairs of heels in your desk at work to give yourself options throughout the day.
3) Don’t Wear Them Every Day
Just like you let your body rest between workouts, your feet need a rest from high heels. Sutera suggests mixing up your footwear throughout the week and even throughout the day so your muscles don’t get too strained from one particular style.
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4) Stretch and Ice
When you wear high heels every day, over time you can permanently damage your feet — such as by causing your Achilles tendon to shrink and shorten or wearing away the fat pad on the bottom of your foot.
To counteract the stress that heels put on your body, Sutera recommends calf and Achilles stretches like downward dog and icing sore lower-leg muscles.
Five Healthy Brands We Love
Ready for a healthier heel? Here are five brands that carry cute and sexy heels that are also comfortable, so you never have to sacrifice your health for fashion:
Nina is known for their elegant evening styles and they offer a variety of kitten heels, which are heels between 1 and 2 inches in height.
Naturalizer has been making sexy yet comfortable shoes for decades. If you haven't checked out their shoes lately, they are worth a second look. They have stepped up their style game in recent years.
Aerosoles have memory foam footbeds for superior shock absorption. Many of the heels are designed to distribute weight toward your heel and away from the ball of your foot. The styles are cute, too!
Clarks offer different levels of cushioning in their shoes, including footbeds that actually improve your posture.
Sofft brings super-soft footbeds with solid arch support to their beautiful heel selection.
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What do YOU think?
Do you wear heels every day? What are your best tips on how to wear heels without pain? What are your favorite brands of heels that are both cute and comfortable? Let us know in the comments below!
Kate Bayless is an accomplished writer covering lifestyle, health, travel and parenting with bylines across the web at sites like Prevention, LivingHealthy, Babble and Momtrends as well as national glossies like Parents and Fit Pregnancy.