This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Never has the phrase “beauty is pain” been more true than after a day in a pair of to-die-for shoes that leave you rubbing your arches and reaching for the epsom salt. And, while achy soles could lead you to sit out a few dances, there are also some serious, life-long risks at stake when we over abuse our feet.
We are not in any position to rain on your shoe parade (nor would we ever want to!). And if we said we’d ditch our pumps and platforms upon learning the not-so-pretty reality about our favorite footwear, well, that would be a gross exaggeration. But nonetheless, knowledge, like the right pair of shoes, is power. Therefore, we turned to two of our trusted sources Dr. Thomas Novella, D.P.M., and Jim Wharton, musculoskeletal therapist, for answers.
These experts broke down the six basic styles we all love to wear and filled us in on what exactly our shoes are doing to our bodies — the immediate effects as well as the challenges that may arise after extended use. They gave us a complete explanation about what exactly happens when we slide into our favorite pairs, and more importantly, how we can reclaim and preserve the health of our feet so, hopefully, we never have to sit out another dance again.
The Ballet Flat — There’s a reason why foldable, easy-to-carry flats are so popular. Flats offer basic support, more balance, and less strain on the lower leg, says Wharton. For everyday use, they are a fairly safe bet, but there may be a downside to what you consider to be your “sensible” or “comfortable” shoes. As Dr. Novella explains, those who are devoted heel lovers can actually experience discomfort when they suddenly slip into flats all day. “People who are used to heels can experience plantar fasciitis or strain of the band, which supports the arch,” he explains. In addition, because of the shape of the shoe, toe movement may be restricted, causing pressure on the sides of the foot and eventually could lead to bunions.
One solution may be to choose a wide toe-box flat that will prevent any toe crunching, or simply being more aware of toe restraint when selecting a new style. We’re not advocating a life-long square-toe-only shoe collection, but do think about introducing some variety. A few cushioned flats to throw on whenever your don’t need to wear something fancy can certainly help, as well.
The Stiletto Heel — As one of, if not the most classic women’s shoe shape, the stiletto (and shoe styles of the same structure) offer several challenges, from finding your balanceto serious foot aches after a week’s worth of wear at your 9-5. And the reason for discomfort is simple: “It’s a very thin heel support and it’s a very high lift so, all in all, it puts the body in a biomechanically compromising [position],” Wharton explains. And, whether you know it or not, your body is doing serious work just to keep you up in your pumps. “It’s postural strain [when worn] 24-48 hours. If you’re not used to wearing them and you haven’t adapted to them, you [may] strain muscles in that posterior chain, which is coming from the heel, through the calf, up into the knee, through the hamstring, up into the gluteal, and up into the back…so they might present some muscle soreness initially.” Commonly, the engaged muscles in the calves and elsewhere may even remain in their contracted, shortened state even after the heels are removed.
The good news? “Many women are used to this style shoe and seem to tolerate them comfortably all day long,” says Dr. Novella. Even those who are not accustomed to wearing the style, say “recent college grads, used to sneakers, who enter the business world and suddenly begin wearing stiletto pumps all day long,” can relieve the pressure on their toes and risk of corns, bunions, pinched nerves at the ball of the foot by moderating stiletto wearing and swamping in a pair of flats for the commute. Also, —hello, kitten heels! — Dr. Novella suggest that a 1-3/8″ to 1-3/4” heel may also be a less stressful option for the body.
The Flip Flop — You may not be entirely shocked to find that flip flops generally offer no support, as both our experts agree. But, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. As Wharton explains, due to the shoe’s lack of support, the job falls on the natural structure of the body, making the foot and ankle do all the work. Use over time — with the exception of inappropriate use, such as running in flip flops or wearing them during freezing temperatures, for example — may actually lead to a stronger foot, “as muscles adapt to more natural work and less support.”
However, trading in your weekday shoes for weekend flip-flops may not always be an easy transition. “If someone used to heels suddenly wears flip-flops all day, they run the risk of muscle or tendon injury for example,” says Dr. Novella. “The best way to change from one style to another is gradually…either in terms of gradual increase or reduction in heel height or support, or in terms of gradual usage of such different shoes.” And like most cases in which our bodies feel discomfort, you need to trust your instincts, he says: If you feel pain, don’t assume it’s okay to push through it.
The Thick Strap/Thick Heel — In case you didn’t get the memo, we
like love a chunky heel. And while we’re not doctors, we can personally attest to these soles providing more balance and stability — thankfully, the experts agree. These sky-high pairs can still come with negative ankle and stability issues, like the pumps, but due to the strap and stacked heel, the hazards may be offset, according to Dr. Novella. The “shank looks solid and has nice S-shaped curve to support the arch,” he says.
Initially, any discomfort you may experience from this thicker style would be similar to the discomfort of a pump, “but the body would adapt quicker,” Wharton says. Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. Despite the benefit of the ankle strap, women should still be advised that such a high heel can put their posture in a compromised position. As Dr. Novella describes, the muscles on the sides and front of the hips are engaged during usage. The leg is lengthened, and the hips may sway. What may sound like one seriously sexy supermodel walk can also be dangerous. “The overuse of the muscles in the front of the hip can tighten these flexors and increase low back curvature, which can lead to back problems,” he says.
The Shearling Boot — Style preferences aside, the mid-shin shearling boot didn’t rank so poorly among our foot experts. While both agreed that the shoe itself does not offer a lot of support for the foot, due to the tall shaft, there may be some benefits to donning a pair. The ankle is supported, and because of the shoe height, “the ankle also solidly anchors [the] footgear to the foot,” explains Dr. Novella, “encouraging confident long strides, which employ and strengthen a fuller complement of muscles in the lower extremity.”
Those who choose to walk (not run, there’s definitely not enough support to do that) in the chunky boot could possibly experience strain in the back, Achilles, or calf, but usually — as in the case with other flat styles — when your foot is more accustomed to walking in a heel. In the long run, any effects of wearing thesevery popular boots are probably not going to cause serious damage as they are seasonal, says Dr. Novella, and only will be used for a temporary amount of time. But, should you happen to be a fan, don’t assume the plush lining can double as a sock. According to our expert, this style may be “unhygienic and malodorous” if your foot’s going commando.
The Wedge — We’ll admit, things get a bit shaky when it comes to the wedge, and we’re not just talking ankle support and heel stability (sorry ladies, there is very little in this style). Dr. Novella advises that this kind of shoe may commonly cause sprained ankles, heel bruising, and, as a result down the road, knee discomfort, ankle instability, and back problems.
While this sounds a bit alarming, Wharton presents a different angle that should also be considered. The heel offers a little (and we stress, little) more support than the other heel styles we’ve included, but is a more adaptable shoe, he states. “There is a wider sole this time and there’s a lower angle of lift,” he continues, which may help a woman’s body adapt to these pairs quicker than others. And while the long-term effects are similar to that of a stiletto or ankle-strap shoe, the severity is less and can be corrected with the proper excersices. After all, a healthy foot is one that can enjoy a multitude of styles. But, more on that in the final slide…
The Antidote — Both of our trusted experts agree that — much like other delicious indulgences of life — our favorite shoes can be enjoyed for a lifetime in moderation. Dr. Novella stresses that our feet need time to recover from the strain we may put on them, which means that switching pairs when you arrive to your destination or stashing a supportive pair in your car or carryall may mean the difference between blissfully dancing the night away or spoiling a special moment with barking pains in your soles. Conversely, we should thoughtfully transition from a high to low heel, taking the time to stretch our calves, making the switch a little easier on our muscles and tendons.
Sounds like a lot of work? Well, kinda. But if you want to wear any pair you’d like, then, as Wharton’s advises, “think like an athlete.” If you condition your body to “prepare to wear,” as he calls it, you may be able to avoid the negative short- and long-term dangers. In other words, we need to take the initiative to improve and preserve the health of our feet so we can comfortably enjoy the shoes we love for years to come. To take the first step, he’s laid out a combination of daily flexibility exercises and weekly strengthening exercises that may make a huge difference no matter which pairs you wear most often. Of course, should any extended pain or discomfort continue, be sure to consult your physician.
Seated Heel Raise: Sit upright in a chair, feet flat on the floor. Raise one heel off the floor, keeping the ball of the foot planted, then slowly lower to the ground. You can increase resistence by placing a light weight on your thigh. Repeat 10 times, then switch legs. Complete two sets, weekly. Works the inner calf muscle that attaches to the Achilles tendon.
Standing Heel Raise: Stand with feet together on a flat surface. Lift both heels, as high as possible like a ballerina, then lower to the ground. Repeat 10 times, for two sets, weekly. Works the whole calf muscle.
Sock & Weight: Place a weight (begin with two pounds, you can work your way up as you build strength) at the bottom of a long sock. Anchor the sock between the big toe and second toe, wrapping the remainder of the sock around the arch of the foot to secure. With the sock weight hanging, slowly raise the toes to point to the outside of your body, then swing them back down to the center, pointed to the floor. Swing the toes to the opposite direction, pointed inward, then return to center again. Perform this U-shaped swing for 10 reps, twice weekly. (This video tutorial may help, as well.) This strength exercise will build support on the inside and the outside of the lower leg.
Gastrocnemius: Sit on floor with legs stretched out in front of you. Lift the toes and begin to flex the foot upward. Reach your arms to your toes, and hold for two seconds. Repeat 10 times, daily. This works to stretch the calf muscles.
Soleus: In the same seated position, bend one knee toward the chest at a 90-degree angle, while keeping the other leg straightened. Flex the foot of the bent leg so that the toes are pointed upward and heel is on the floor. Grab the foot with both hands and gently pull the toes toward your chest as much as possible. Hold for two seconds and repeat 10 times. Then switch legs and begin sequence again. Perform daily. Stretches the muscles in the back of the leg.
Straight-Leg Hamstrings: Lie on your back, one leg bent with foot flat on the floor. Straighten the other leg and lift it as high as possible, aiming for a 90-degree angle with the floor. Using the foot that’s in the air, press the heel toward the ceiling. Feel the stretch in the back of the leg, and for a more-advanced pose, lift the torso up and reach the hands toward the foot in the air. A rope or exercise band may also be used to assist with this exercise. Hold the stretch for two seconds and repeat 10 times. Then switch legs and begin sequence again. Perform daily. Stretches the muscles in the back of the thigh.
Illustrated by Zhang Qingyun
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