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Shoes are for women what cars are for men.
Most women feel more glamorous and confident when wearing a pair of high heels. And just like a man doesn’t want to leave a sleek sports car sitting undriven in his garage, a woman doesn’t want to leave her beautiful high heels sitting unworn in her closet. Yet many women feel forced to do just that because of significant pain that often comes from wearing them.
High heeled shoes can create excess pressure on the plantar surface (sole of the foot) which can lead to metatarsalgia (ball of the foot pain), excess stress on foot joints, as well as painful calluses and bunions. Walking in high heels can also cause plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendon damage and muscular imbalances in the legs and feet that can contribute to knee pain, heel pain (plantar fasciitis) and hammer toes.
Discouraged? Don’t be, because it’s time to get your gorgeous Manolo Blahniks and your Christian Louboutins off the shelf and back on your feet where they belong. Here are my top expert tips for making your high heels comfortable.
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1. Get the right fit.
When was the last time you checked your shoe size? The size of your foot can change as much as one full size over the years, especially after you have children. Have your feet measured at least once a year for both width and length to make sure you are allowing for these natural changes. Be aware that shoe sizes vary among different designers, so be ready to try on different sizes and styles to get the right fit.
Our feet tend to swell during the day, so shoes that feel fine in the morning may be painful by 5 p.m. You can alleviate this problem by shoe shopping in the late afternoon or early evening. Try on both shoes in the store and be sure to stand up and slowly walk around the store checking for fit and comfort.
Next check the materials of the shoe. Look for leather, suede or nylon mesh materials that will bend and stretch with the foot as you walk. Consider insoles for added foot comfort and to reduce the impact on your knees.
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2. Consider heel height and shape.
While you may love the way a towering stiletto can make you feel, it’s best to avoid heels that are greater than three inches in height. When you wear a heel greater than three inches, your foot tends to slide forward. To compensate for this forward motion, a woman will unconsciously push her body backward which results in her tightening her hip and knee muscles.
Research has shown that arthritis of the knee is twice as common in women over men, and some of that blame is undoubtedly due to high heels. In addition, consistently wearing high heels over three inches could lead to the shortening of the muscles in your calves and in your back.
So what styles are best? Generally, the thicker the heel, the better it is for your feet. In addition, look for a thicker sole or bit of a platform under the toe area. A slight platform minimizes the angle and pressure on the ball of the foot. Check for some padding at the toe area which will reduce pressure on the toes as you walk.
Have you noticed that you can walk far more comfortably in your high heel boots than in your other heels? High heels with the most coverage of the foot tend to be the most comfortable. Choose styles that fit the shape of your foot, have a rounded to box and offer enough material to hold your foot in place. Look for boots, pumps and shoes that have straps across the toe area, arch and ankle.
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3. Work on your posture and gait.
Have you ever noticed how some women seem to walk effortlessly in high heels while others walk slowly and unnaturally? Walking correctly in high heels may take a bit of practice, but once you get it, it can make all the difference in comfort. Your gait should follow the same heel to toe pattern that you follow when you are barefoot. Here are three tips:
- stand up straight instead of bending your trunk forward
- engage your core muscles
- stay relaxed through your hips and knees
I also recommend that you see a physical therapist for a posture evaluation and gait analysis in order for you to see how you can improve your overall posture with and without high heels. Take some time to practice walking correctly in your high heels at home before you go out. When walking up stairs, use your back leg to balance and push yourself upward.
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4. Strengthen the muscles in your feet.
Many women find that if they perform a few simple stretching exercises they can alleviate much of the pain and discomfort associated with wearing high heels. Here are three I recommend:
- Stand barefoot on your toes for 15 to 20 seconds. Repeat this exercise five times.
- Without your heels on, draw the letters of the alphabet with your ankle in the air.
- Put a pencil or a towel on the floor and try to grab it with your toes.
After wearing your high heels, try performing some light stretching of the Achilles tendon and foot muscles followed by gently massaging the foot using your favorite skin lotion. This practice will increase blood flow in the foot and will relax your foot muscles. By using a moisturizer, you also will help prevent skin problems that can occur when your toes have been kept in a narrow shoe toe box.
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5. Carry flats for long-distance walking.
Most of the foot and leg problems that occur with high heel shoes are due to consistent and long-term wear. Try to minimize the time you spend wearing your heels. Keep a pair of go-with-anything flats in your desk drawer, in your briefcase or in your car for occasions when you have to do a lot of walking.
Kick your shoes off when you can during the day and take a few minutes to stretch your ankles and your toes.
Also try to alternate wearing different types of heels and heel heights each day. You will give your feet and legs a break if you choose a flat or kitten heel to wear several days a week.
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Here are some other high-heel-friendly exercises to try at home:
Counter Top Stretch:
Place both hands on a counter surface. Step back a few feet so that you can lean onto the surface in a yoga plank position, all in one line. You will feel a slight stretching in the backs of your calves and thighs.
Inhale and exhale two times, then lean back by hinging at your hips, keeping your back ﬂat. You will feel a slight stretch from your shoulders and your spine as you take two deep breaths. Return back to the initial plank position and start again. Repeat four times. At the last plank position, step towards the counter before standing to avoid straining your low back.
Tennis Ball Roll:
This exercise is great for tired arches and for softening the fascia under your feet. While standing up, place a tennis ball under your right foot. Gently put your weight onto the ball, starting at the back of your foot, rolling it towards your big toe, then rolling it back to the heel. Continue this motion for each toe for a total of two to three minutes. Repeat with your left foot.
Point and Flex:
This exercise should be done slowly and gently, as it works small muscles that are prone to cramping.
- Sit with your right leg outstretched
- Point your toes downward, then turn them towards you
- Hold this position for four seconds
- Push your heel away while your curling toes
- Hold for four seconds
- Repeat eight times
- Repeat on left side
This exercise helps to maintain alignment between your feet, ankles and shins. Place one hand lightly on a chair positioned at your side. Stand in bare feet, hip width apart and parallel to each other. Slowly rise up onto the balls of your feet as high as you can. Avoid rolling out to the sides and keep your toes ﬂat, not curled. Hold this position for a few seconds before slowly descending. Repeat eight times.
Aarzoo Patel, P.T.
A burgeoning force in the world of Physical Therapy, Aarzoo Patel has continued NY Chiropractic & Physical Therapy’s established lead of comprehensive physical therapy treatment and post-surgical rehabilitation in New York.
Educated in India, Aarzoo has dedicated herself to studying a plethora of techniques and disciplines to help structure customized rehabilitation plans for her patients. As part of her education, Aarzoo has practiced Sports Physiotherapy, Maitland’s Clinical Reasoning and Manual Therapy Approach, Integrated Soft Tissue Mobilization, and Kinesio & Essential Taping Techniques. She is currently studying for her Doctorate in Physical Therapy.
In addition to creating exercise plans for her patients to use at home, Aarzoo and her team of Physical Therapists also teach strengthening techniques, proper posture and body mechanics during everyday activities, and also assess patients for irregularities such as muscle imbalances.