Toning Sneakers

By Chandra Orr

December 3, 2010 5 min read

Get a better body just by wearing the right shoes? It sounds too good to be true -- and it might be.

With promises of a tighter tush, toned thighs and lean leg muscles, companies such as Reebok, Skechers and MBT are doing big business with sneakers designed to give people workouts outside of the gym. However, some experts are skeptical.

"These shoes promise an easy way to get in shape, a promise of fitness that does not require any work. This is a one-size-fits-all solution, but we are all built differently," says Dr. William Charschan, owner of Charschan Chiropractic and Sports Injury Associates.

Toning shoes rely on unstable rocker sole technology. The rolling bottom, coupled with a softer insole, simulates walking on soft, uneven terrain, such as sand. This instability forces the body to adapt and use different muscles in the legs, buttocks and back to keep moving -- and you will feel the burn. After all, it's a new way of walking.

"Walking is one of your most complicated biomechanical achievements. There are 26 bones and 30 muscles that operate each foot," says Dr. Daniel Howell, associate professor of biology at Liberty University and author of "The Barefoot Book." "Toning shoes eliminate virtually all of the natural motions. The foot is completely immobilized inside the shoe, and ambulation is achieved by rolling on top of a hard 'rocker.'"

Wearers have the sensation of working out, but the effect isn't likely to last long. As the body adapts to this different walking style, the localized muscle soreness in the legs likely will fade -- and forget about a better butt.

"The purposeful instability of the toning shoe requires muscular effort to maintain balance and walk. This does require extra work from leg muscles, so wearing them theoretically constitutes a workout," Howell says. "However, there is no scientific evidence that toning shoes affect the gluteus maximus, which is generally used only when running and is rather dormant when walking."

It turns out toning shoes don't live up to the hype, a point confirmed by a recent study from the American Council on Exercise, the world's leading nonprofit fitness certification, education and training organization.

The study examined Reebok EasyTone shoes, Skechers Shape-ups and shoes from MBT and found no evidence to support claims that they help burn more calories or improve muscle strength and tone.

"Toning shoes appear to promise a quick and easy fitness solution. Unfortunately, these shoes do not deliver the fitness or muscle-toning benefits they claim," says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., chief science officer for the ACE. "Our findings demonstrate that toning shoes are not the magic solution consumers were hoping they would be and simply do not offer any benefits that people cannot reap through walking, running or exercising in traditional athletic shoes."

Yet consumers aren't deterred, and converts have plenty of anecdotal evidence in praise of the toning shoe.

"I have worn the toners since March, and I love them. I am not sure how much more toned I am, but it's like walking on clouds," says Marina Smidesang, an avid walker and hiker. "I recently went on a hike, which was very muddy, so I switched to my normal higher-on-the-leg walking boot. Ouch. I must say, I love my toning sneakers even more now."

The ACE says traditional running shoes are a more economical way to go when getting in shape, but the higher price tag on toning shoes may be worth the hidden benefit -- the motivation factor.

"If these shoes are serving as a motivator for individuals to walk or get moving more often, that is a good thing, even if they don't produce the dramatic toning and calorie-burning results people think they are getting," Bryant says.

Consumers should limit the time they spend in the shoes each day, though, as many experts believe extended use of toning sneakers can pose a health risk.

"People with an asymmetrical gait -- which is 50 percent of the populace or more -- may actually develop problems from these. Have your body mechanics checked out before wearing them. If you have poor balance while standing on either leg, forget it," Charschan says.

Howell recommends against the use of toning shoes altogether.

"Toning shoes not only increase the risk of falling because of their instability but also induce many negative changes to the human gait. The possible benefits from increased activity in a few muscles are not worth the overall damaging effects," he says. "Like diets that have made grand claims and then fallen to the wayside, I think toner shoes are a fad."

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