How to Buy the Right Shoes

Believe it or not, one person can have two feet that are slightly different in size and shape. And even if yours seem identically matched, they don't necessarily remain a constant size. Your feet can actually be different sizes at different times of the day. There are also more lasting changes: Most feet gradually widen with age, and sometimes women's feet "grow" (because of muscle relaxation during pregnancy) after the birth of a child.

Whatever the size of your feet (at any given time) it's important to buy the right shoes -- shoes that will fit correctly and offer your feet and ankles the support they need. The following suggestions will help you become a smart shoe shopper.

Shop for shoes in the late afternoon or evening, since that's when your feet are the biggest (they swell during the day). Have the salesperson measure both feet while you're standing up, because your feet expand under the weight of your body. Carefully consider the fit and walking comfort of each pair of shoes you try and keep in mind that "size 8" in three different styles, even from the same manufacturer, can fit your feet differently.

If you have wide feet, always ask (even if the salesperson has measured your feet) if the style you've chosen comes in a wide width. Fortunately, comfortable shoes have become popular -- even stylish -- and shoe manufacturers are waking up to the fact that not everyone has a medium-width foot. Some manufacturers make shoes as wide as triple-E (on a scale of A to E, with AA being the narrowest).

There are two other contributors to your shoe "size" as well: The shape of your foot (how the shoe's "upper" conforms to your foot) and the heel height that is best for you. Because high heels shift body weight onto the front of your feet, heavy people and people with bunions, corns, hammertoes, and the like should opt for lower heels. If you have excessively pronated ("flat") feet, Achilles tendinitis, short calf muscles, or knee problems, however, shoes with a moderate heel may be more comfortable for you, because they lessen the pull on already-overstretched tendons and muscles.

Once you know your size, you can begin to select shoes that will be more comfortable. However, give your feet a break and avoid the six foot-foiling shoe styles discussed here:

  • Stiletto heels, or any other heel that is higher than three inches, redistributes your body weight so that 90 percent of it is on the front of your feet. This extraordinary pressure can create calluses on the ball of the foot and increase the pain of bunions, hammertoes, and corns. It also strains the muscles and tendons in the arch of the foot. And because these heels tend to have narrow points on the ground, they make maintaining your balance quite a challenge and add to the danger of falling or turning and spraining your ankle.
  • Pointy-toe shoes squeeze the toes together, causing uncomfortable calluses and corns. Pointy shoes can also put pressure on ingrown toenails and bunions and can increase the likelihood of hammertoes.
  • Flats can be a problem not just for people with arch and Achilles tendon problems, but for anyone who wears them exclusively. Over time, your foot gets used to being pronated (flattened) and you may develop arch pain and tendinitis. Flats can be the staple of your shoe wardrobe, but alternate them with shoes that have a moderate heel.
  • Mules generally have a high heel, and so you're likely to have all the same problems as those mentioned above, when too much pressure is placed on the front of the foot. But what distinguishes this style from others is the lack of heel support, increasing your chances of injury if your foot turns on the heel or slips out of the shoe.
  • Platform shoes, popular in the 1970s, unfortunately come back in style periodically. Like high heels, they are so unstable that you can't help but periodically turn your ankle, possibly causing muscle strain, a sprain, or even a fracture.
  • Old shoes with worn-down heels or traction, flattened insoles, stretched-out uppers, or unraveling stitching can cause you to slip, can strain foot muscles, and can lead to ankle sprains.

With all this in mind, now it's time to look for a new pair of shoes. Most people think that trying on shoes is about how the shoes feel on your feet. That's true. Certainly, if they don't feel good, you don't want them. But you should evaluate shoes based on several more-specific factors:

  • The toe box, or area around your toes, should be roomy enough for your toes to rest comfortably. Too much room can allow feet to slide inside shoes, causing calluses and other irritation. The more common problem is that the toe box is too tight. If you have wide feet, the toe box is probably your biggest shoe problem. There should also be room in front of the toes, at least 3/8" to 1/2" between your longest toe and the front of the shoe when you are standing. And there should be room above your toes to prevent the shoe from rubbing against them, causing corns. To test the above criteria, make sure you can wiggle your toes inside the toe box when standing.
  • A shoe's "upper" -- the material on the top of it -- should conform to the shape of your foot. It should provide support but also "give" when your foot moves. Look for an upper made of a material that is nonirritating and porous, allowing air into the shoe. Leather is more likely than vinyl to have these characteristics. (Polish leather shoes frequently to help the uppers stay soft and supple.)
  • The shoe should provide ample cushioning to absorb shock on foot bones and muscles each time you take a step. You need such cushioning in three key areas: the arch; the front, where the ball of the foot rests; and the heel, which normally supports 25 percent of your body weight. If the insole material is also absorbent, it will help relieve heat inside shoes and prevent rashes and the spread of infection.
  • Soles should provide adequate traction to prevent slipping on any surfaces where you expect to be wearing the shoes.
  • Heels should ideally provide slight elevation (between 3/4" and 1") for the foot, whether there's an actual heel or just a sole that's thicker toward the back of the shoe. The counter -- the part of the shoe that curves around the back of your heel -- should be stiff enough to prevent ankle strains and sprains. The back of your foot should fit snugly into the heel of the shoe, not slide around inside it.

Two more general tips: If your two feet are different sizes, choose shoes that fit the bigger foot. (You can pad or add support inserts to the other shoe.) And never buy shoes that are too stiff or too tight with the expectation that you will "break them in." You're likely to suffer much longer than you expected.

Although all this means that you must be a sophisticated and patient shoe shopper, the good news is that many fashionable shoes currently on the market meet all of these qualifications, and many even resemble athletic shoes in design.

This is especially good news for the 59 percent of American women who wear high-heeled shoes every day. As consumers have become more health conscious, shoe manufacturers have given new attention to developing good-looking shoes (even with heels) that won't hurt your feet.

Selecting the right athletic shoe for the type of sport or exercise you enjoy is an even more specific task. Get some pointers on this process on the next page.

To learn more about treating and avoiding problems with your feet, visit:

  • Everyday Foot Problems: Discover what causes some of the most commonly encountered foot problems, as well as how to treat or avoid them.
  • Foot Injuries: Learn about common foot injuries and first aid techniques for feet -- from blisters to broken bones -- with this informative article.