No matter how great they look or how good they make you feel, there's risk associated with your favourite high heels. We love wearing them, but darn it, why can't they be more comfortable?
High heels prop us into an unnatural stance that puts extra pressure on the ball of the foot, shortens the Achilles tendon at the back of the ankle, tightens the calf muscles, and can cause a whole array of foot, ankle and even back problems. If you consider that we log thousands of miles in our lifetime, and that our feet provide the support through the journey, it's no wonder they can sometimes pipe up in painful protest.
Since sneakers don't exactly complement your favourite summer dresses, why not arm yourself with some foot sense, and walk away with happier, healthier high-heel appeal?
Here are 4 high-heel hints to keep the spring in your summer steps.
1. Tendon tightness
The Achilles tendon is the thick, strong tendon at the back of your foot that connects your calf muscle to your ankle bone and while it can withstand high forces, it's also injury prone. If you frequently wear high heels, you risk shortening and tightening calf muscles and the Achilles tendon because your heels have limited contact with the ground -- which aids in stretching both areas.
High heel help: Regularly stretch your calves and Achilles tendons, especially once you've stepped out of your stilettos.
Calf stretch: Standing about a foot from a wall, extend one leg behind you, keeping both feet flat on the floor. Point toes toward wall and keep rear knee straight. Move your hips forward, keeping lower back flat. Lean into the wall until you feel tension in the calf muscle of the extended leg.
Achilles stretch: Begin in the same position as above, but slowly bend the knee of the extended leg. As your hips lower, keep both heels in contact with the floor and you should feel a slight stretch in the Achilles tendon of the extended leg.
***Hold all stretches for 10 to 30 seconds or until tension releases. If pain or discomfort is felt, release the stretch.
Read on for high-heel buying tips and three more exercises.
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2. Toe box-ing
With most high heels, fashion overrides function, either compressing the toes or forcing them together, which results in blisters, corns, bunions and many other medical conditions, some of which may require surgery. Morton's neuroma is caused by a thickening of tissue around a nerve between the third and fourth toes. High heel use can bring about this condition through irritation and excessive pressure on the ball of the foot. This stubborn condition is made better with orthotics, cortisone injections and sometimes surgery. In this situation, prevention is surely the key.
High heel help: First off, limit the amount of time that you wear high heels. When you're in shoes, try to wear heels only half the time. Spend the rest of the time barefoot; in supportive, flat-soled shoes; or in good athletic shoes.
When you purchase high heels, follow these helpful guidelines:
Buy the right size. Your feet get longer and wider as you age so if it's been a while, have your size remeasured. Stand during the measure so you capture your weight-bearing size.
Fit also by feel. Sizes can vary from one manufacturer to another and from one style to another. If your normal size 9 feels tight, go bigger.
Big foot wins out. Many of us have one foot that is larger. If so, buy for the big foot so comfort wins out.
Late day expansion. Your feet swell during the day, so buy later, since a shoe that feels fine when you try it on in the morning could feel tight that afternoon.
3. Foot fall-ies
Have you ever fallen off your shoe? The position of the foot in the heels and an often narrow heel width can cause the ankle to become unstable, resulting in ankle sprains or worse -- not to mention the embarrassment of picking yourself up off the ground.
High heel help: If you tend to be off balance, choose shoes with a wider heel, or avoid ankle straps in favour of a full heel. If you love the spikey, strappy models that put you at risk for a foot fall, try this balancing exercise to strengthen the muscles in your feet and ankles.
Alphabet foot: Stand barefoot, balancing on your right foot. Relax this foot and maintain contact with your big toe, little toe and heel while you "air draw" the alphabet with your other leg. The varying positions of your moving leg will force you to test your balance on the support foot, thereby strengthening those muscles in multitudes of movement patterns.
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4. Biting back
High heels shift our centre of gravity forward, causing the spine to bend backward to compensate. Is it any wonder that a long day standing in high heels causes low back pain?
High heel help: If you have to be on your feet for long periods, try to find even brief opportunities to sit down and take a load off. When you're standing, think about core and postural awareness for better back health. Whether you're in a lineup, at a networking event, or waiting for the elevator, be sure to practice "posture perfect." Square your shoulders, lengthen your spine and bear your weight on both feet. Keep shoulders, hips and knees "stacked" over one another. Pull in and up on your abdominals in a light contraction that will not only provide support for your back, but will strengthen your abdominals.
Conversations and distractions make "posture perfect" difficult to maintain nonstop, so give yourself a cue -- every time you look at your watch or greet a colleague, for example -- that will remind you to re-engage throughout the day. These little efforts in conjunction with your regular core fitness regime will help minimize back bite.
High heels may be a pain in the foot but they're here to stay, so if you're still walking with happy feet, take these simple precautions toward prevention. If you feel you've overstepped your high-heel health with these or other foot maladies, take a sensible approach to your foot fashion and also talk to a podiatrist who can clearly diagnose your pain. It's important to remember that high-heel hindrances like these don't happen overnight, but rather develop over time, and you can take small steps each day to keep the pain away.
Michelle Cederberg MKin, PFLC
As president of Live Out Loud Fitness and Wellness Consulting, Michelle helps individuals and organizations Pump up Productivity in work, fitness and life. She has built her career in the fitness industry since 1990, as a personal trainer and educator, and expands that practical experience into motivational speaking and consulting. Her lively sessions have entertained hundreds of audiences across Canada and the U.S. To gain access to helpful fitness products and tips, contact Michelle at www.liveoutloud.ca and spend your summer getting "Fit by Bit."
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