Many women know that high heels are hardly the most comfortable, stable or practical shoe around - but persist in wearing them for obvious, confidence-boosting reasons.
In a first-of-its-kind study, new research goes beyond the ‘no pain, no gain’ anecdotal responses to high heels, looking at the lasting physiological implications of tottering on a three- to four-inch heel day after day.
Australian scientists have found that, by constantly forcing a foot into a ‘plantarflexed’ position, or downwardly pointed toes; women are changing their walking behaviour - at the risk of causing permanent damage to leg muscles.
Comparing a group of heel lovers with a control group of women, all of whom were aged between late teens and early 30s, who rarely wear heels, scientists asked women to walk without shoes to assess whether heels had changed the way they strode, reports the New York Times.
The Griffith University, Queensland, Scientists asked the women to walk along a 26-foot runway specially under laid with sensors, said the newspaper. They monitored the varying forces of each foot on the ground as well as the action of joints and muscles.
The study, published this month in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found that even when walking in flats, high-heel devotees - those who have worn a two inch plus heel for more than 40 hours a week over the preceding two years - have a neuro-mechanically adapted style of walking to that of non-heel wearers.
Flat shoe wearers look longer strides, using their tendons to walk rather than overly engaging their calves.
Heel wearers - Victoria Beckham, heel fan incarnate, take note - took shorter, more aggressive steps, putting more pressure on calf muscles, the Times said.
It’s an inefficient way to walk, the team told the newspaper, with heel wearers needing to over-work their calf muscles in order to take steps, rather than relying on the tendons, which deftly control barefoot walking.
The Times reports that the findings came as no surprise to the team, led by Dr. Neil J Cronin, who has since relocated to the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.
The results suggest, write the scientists, that after only two years, heel wearers are more likely to suffer from muscle fatigue and strain injuries.
Particular care, Dr. Cronin told the newspaper, needs to be taken when exercising and putting strain onto tendons that are not often fully flexed - and taking a break from heels is recommended, with the author advising heels to only be worn ‘once or twice a week’.
Serious as injuries may be, we imagine sore calves are unlikely to make those new shoes look any less enticing to many a heel aficionado, including Mrs. Beckham.