Here’s a news flash for everyone who’s looking for a quick fitness fix: there isn’t one. There is no magic equipment, no special pill, and definitely no pair of super sneakers that are going to get you in shape or zap away the weight. It takes watching what you eat and getting your butt moving! Of course, if you look around your local mall, every athletics store is touting some form of “toning shoe” that promises better muscle tone in your legs and back, and all you have to do is wear them!
The first time I saw the shoes I cringed. I have a tendency to trip over everything barefoot, so the idea of being on an uneven platform all day just seemed like a terrible idea. To be fair, I also subscribe to the theory that you should work out in the least amount of shoe you can handle. In any case, my point is that I’ve always been slightly biased against the idea that a curve in the bottom of your shoe will magically make you look better in shorts.
As it turns out, it’s not just my bias. The American Council on Exercise has found there’s no difference in how your muscles actually work in regular shoes versus toning shoes. ACE’s study specifically concluded:
To test the toning shoes’ effectiveness and evaluate their claims, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, led by John Porcari, Ph.D., John Greany, Ph.D., Stephanie Tepper, M.S., Brian Edmonson, B.S. and Carl Foster, Ph.D., designed a pair of studies to evaluate the exercise responses and muscle activation that take place while walking with toning shoes versus traditional athletic shoes. Researchers enlisted 12 physically active female volunteers, ages 19 to 24 years, for the exercise response study, during which they completed a dozen five-minute exercise trials of walking on a treadmill while wearing each type of shoe, including the toning sneakers Skechers Shape-Ups, MBT and Reebok’s EasyTone, and traditional New Balance running shoes. To evaluate muscle activation, researchers recruited a second group of 12 physically active female volunteers, ages 21 to 27 years, who performed similar five-minute treadmill trials and were measured for muscle activity in six muscle areas: calves, quads, hamstrings, buttocks, back and abs.
All three toning shoes tested showed no statistically significant increases in either exercise response or muscle activation during the treadmill trials, when compared to the normal athletic shoes tested. There was simply no evidence to indicate that the toning shoes offer any enhanced fitness benefits over traditional sneakers, despite studies cited by manufacturers seemingly “proving” the toning shoes’ effectiveness. Bryant warns consumers to be wary of such studies sponsored by manufacturers, many of which are not peer-reviewed and may be of questionable design. ACE’s study also addresses anecdotal evidence consumers have shared indicating that they feel the shoes are working their muscles due to localized muscle soreness. Study researchers explain that this feeling is due to the shoe’s unstable sole design, which cause wearers to use slightly different muscles to maintain balance than they would while wearing normal shoes, resulting in temporary soreness that will subside as the body adjusts to the shoe.
Meanwhile, Reebok claims:
Get a better butt and better legs with every step. Built specifically for walking and everyday activities, the EasyTone Reenew can help tighten and tone key leg muscles thanks to our patented sole technology – pockets of moving air that emulate walking on sand.
And Skechers says:
SKECHERS Shape-ups Kinetix Response SRT training shoes: 1. Tone your muscles 2. Promote healthy weight loss 3. Make it easy to get in shape!
While the grand-daddy of these shoes, MBT, manages to cite reports without links, so if you want to determine the context of their claims it’s on you to do the legwork:
MBTs activate and strengthen the small supporting muscles which are the body’s “natural shock absorbers”.11 The key to the MBT is the patented sole construction, at the heart of which is the soft Masai Sensor. It is located directly beneath the heel and simulates walking and standing on uneven ground. This creates a natural instability, to which the body responds with small, intuitive, compensatory movements. The midsole, with its integrated balancing area, requires an active and controlled rolling movement with every step. In conjunction with the Masai Sensor, the body’s entire musculoskeletal system is activated and exercised, the muscles in the buttocks,6 stomach and back4 are strengthened, posture and gait are kept relaxed and upright6;12 and stress on the joints2;6;7 and back6 is relieved. Not only does MBT increase the fitness levels of its wearer with every step, it also has sustainable health benefits.
The point is, these are fluffy marketing claims without any backing, while a major peer-reviewed report pokes some big holes in the “shoes make your butt more shapely” argument.
Of course, there is one major difference between regular shoes and toning shoes. If you buy the “original” toning shoes, MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology) you’re spending the equivalent of at least two, if not three, running shoes. MBTs cost $200 ON SALE at Zappos. Even the ubiquitous Skechers cost you the same as a good pair of running shoes. And sadly for your wallet, they won’t have bought you any better results than if you just went out and walked, biked, or ran every day in regular shoes.
I hate to be so harsh on a fad, but these really are a sucker’s deal. The answer isn’t to wear silly shoes but just get out and get moving. Personally, I love to run, but even just walking (in normal shoes!) has an impact. Unless you love the style of the shoes, or they help with some other specific issue (I know one person who swears by them because they reduce her back pain), they aren’t a magic bullet, just very slickly packaged snake oil!