Fitness Shoe Claims

Can simply sauntering around in a pair of so-called toning shoes give you more shapely legs and a "better butt," as some companies claim? Can they help you lose weight, reduce cellulite, ease stress on joints and improve circulation? Making such claims in ads has apparently worked: In 2010, sales of toning footwear—also called wellness or fitness shoes—topped $1 billion, up from $360 million in 2009. But do toning shoes work?

With their bulging soles and orthopedic appearance, MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology) shoes were the first to hit stores in the early 2000s. They've been toned down over the years, so to speak, to look less odd, and have since been joined by a swarm of similar models from Reebok, Skechers, Avia, New Balance and other manufacturers, selling for about $30 to more than $200. You can even find toning boots, work shoes and sandals (FitFlops, for example).

Toning Shoes: If Only It Were So Easy

Toning shoes are designed with rocker bottoms, curved soles or collapsible heels to deliberately create instability when you walk, similar to the effects of standing on a balance or wobble board or walking in sand. In essence, they turn a flat walking surface into an uneven one, giving muscles you don't normally use a workout.

The problem is that there's no convincing evidence that they work as claimed. Studies have been small and most haven't been published in peer-reviewed journals. And results have been inconsistent. Some studies suggest that the shoes may help improve balance and posture. Others have found that the shoes increase activation of muscles in the lower extremities. But this doesn't mean you will develop stronger leg muscles, burn more calories or get any other practical benefits. In fact, some studies show no benefits at all in people wearing toning shoes.

Moreover, if you do experience an effect initially, the more you wear the shoes, the more your body adjusts over time. In a study from the University of Calgary in Clinical Biomechanics in 2010, people who wore MBTs all day for six weeks had diminished responses to the shoes, such that their muscles were no longer getting the same workout as at the beginning of the study. The researchers, who have been funded by the manufacturers, subsequently concluded that any changes or benefits are "probably too small to be of clinical relevance."

Effects of Wearing Toning Shoes

Toning shoes alter the way you walk, and this may help some people with conditions such as heel pain and heel spurs. But this could be a problem if you have certain biomechanical problems or foot abnormalities, balance problems, muscle weakness or previous injuries. According to Consumer Reports, there have been injuries related to toning shoes, including tendinitis and foot, leg and hip pain—and even some fractures. Be cautious if you have ankle instability (as from a previous sprain), knee problems, tight calves, neuropathy or arthritis. You may want to talk to your doctor, podiatrist or physical therapist before trying these shoes if you have any such condition.

If you have no problems and want to try them because you find them comfortable, keep in mind that brands and models vary widely in design and feel. You may find yourself off-balance, even dizzy, before you get used to them. And your muscles may be sore at first after wearing them—but don't be fooled into thinking that means you are getting a good workout. The best way to tone your legs and derrière or lose weight is to do lower-body strength training and/or aerobic exercise such as running. If toning shoes—or any other special exercise gear—help motivate you to do this, so much the better.

Toning Shoe Sales

In 2010 the Better Business Bureau recommended that Reebok stop making certain claims for its EasyTone shoes—for instance, that they build a "better butt." The only study provided by Reebok to back up its advertising didn't pass muster with the private agency because it included just five people who walked just several hundred feet wearing the shoes. Recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a $25 million settlement with Reebok. If you’ve purchased these shoes, you can apply to get a refund at reeboksettlement.com/FTC. Skechers has also stopped making certain unsubstantiated statements in its ads, at the request of the FTC.

Adapted from The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (January 2012)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 08 Dec 2011

Last Modified: 08 Dec 2011