How Wearing High Heels Can Actually Be Good for You...Until It's Not

A new study reveals the surprising way high heels affect your ankles.

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You've heard the statistics: Yep, high heels are notorious for causing pain in the lower leg, ankle, and foot along with a number of other foot-related injuries. But according to a new study, wearing them could also strengthen your ankle muscles—at least for the first few years you don them.

A new report published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice looked at young women who were studying to become airline attendants at the Hanseo University in South Korea. The group was instructed to wear heels to class—a wardrobe requirement should they get hired by a Korean airline.

Over four years, the researchers studied 10 women from each class, ranging from incoming freshmen to seniors. In a lab, they examined each woman's balance and tested their ankle strength using a wobbly board and computerized exercising machines.

Surprisingly, the attendants' legs seemed to get stronger the more they got used to high heels—at least at first. Compared to freshmen, sophomore and juniors exhibited a greater strength in muscles around their ankles, especially those on the inside and outside of the joint. However, the senior class women—who had been wearing heels the longest—showed weakening in those same muscles, and dramatically worse balance, even compared to the freshmen.

Jee Yong-Seok, PhD, a co-author of the study and a professor of exercise physiology at Hanseo University, told the New York Times that while "wearing high heeled shoes may at first lead to adaptation and increased strength," the ratio of strength between the side and front and back muscles may eventually become unbalanced and unstable. Translation: those sexy stilettos are still not great for your body over time, even if you feel like you've gotten used to them.

Unwilling to completely forsake your favorite pair of heels? You can protect your feet by practicing moderation. The best advice is to stick with a heel that's no higher than 3 inches, and vary your heel height as much as possible: high heels one day, comfy flats the next. And always give your feet a break if they hurt; carry sensible shoes with you so you can change if you need.

Yong-Seok also told the Times that women who wear high heels often should practice heel lifts and drops whenever possible to prevent injury to ankles and other leg muscles: Stand barefoot, then rise onto your toes repeatedly; then stand on the edge of a stair and slowly lower your heel over the edge. Doing both exercises regularly can help strengthen your ankle muscles.

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