Eric Murray: Can You Shape Up with Shoes?
April 15, 2011
You saw it in the Super Bowl commercial: Kim Kardashian promoting her “amazing-best I’ve ever had” personal trainer for a pair of sexy exercise shoes. “Bye, bye trainer, hello Shape-Ups. Nice shoes,” she says.
Nearly every shoe company has jumped into the profit game with names such as Easy Tone, Fitflops and Thera Shoes. What makes these shoes different is the rocker-type sole that is built to be unstable, like the balance board you use in the health club. When you walk in these shoes, the theory goes, you’re forced to engage muscles in your legs, back and body core that you otherwise rarely use. The effect eventually shows up in your weight and body composition.
Those selling points are strong enough to make the shoes a big hit, particularly among those who like to sit on the couch and have their fitness delivered to them. But the thought surely crossed your mind: is it possible to tone your muscles, get fit and lose weight simply by wearing a certain type of shoe?
One of the first shoes of this type was MBT, introduced in 1996 by a Swiss company. MBT stands for Masai Barefoot Technology, and walking in the shoes is supposed to simulate walking barefoot on a soft, uneven natural surface such as sand. Go to the MBT website, and you can watch an animated video illustrating the difference between the relaxed, erect posture of a person walking on a rocker-type sole compared to the forced, head-forward gait of a person walking on regular heeled shoes.
The company claims that the shoe was developed on the basis of 10 years of physiological research and that 39 studies, including nine peer-reviewed articles, back the ergonomic benefits of MBT shoes.
One study, sponsored by the company, found that patients completing a course of physical therapy and wearing MBT shoes for three months had better long-term results than subjects given a home exercise program without MBT shoes. These studies, however, focus on biomechanics and posture rather than muscle tone and weight loss.
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The MBT market is highly specialized. Pedorthists sometimes recommend them for individuals who need or have failed to get full benefit from orthotic shoe inserts. Those who have used the shoes and liked them say they relieve stress on the lower back, knees and feet, allowing them to walk without pain. According to one pedorthist, however, the shoes are not for everyone. Individuals who over-pronate or have loose ligaments in their ankles may find it harder to control an MBT shoe.
MBT shoes sell for $240 to $390 a pair. Skechers (Shape-Ups) and Reebok (EasyTone) were among the first to introduce similarly designed shoes at a more commercial price point, about $100 a pair.
A study commissioned by Skechers used electromyography to demonstrate increased muscle activity in subjects using Shape-Up shoes. Another study paid for by Reebok concluded that subjects wearing EasyTone shoes used their gluteal, calf and hamstring muscles an average of 11 to 28 percent more than subjects wearing another Reebok walking shoe.
Two independent studies sponsored by the non-profit American Council on Exercise came to a different conclusion. A team of exercise scientists found “no evidence to support the claims that these shoes will help wearers exercise more intensely, burn more calories or improve muscle strength and tone.”
The researchers used two groups of 12 physically active young females walking on a treadmill set at different grades. In one study, researchers measured the subjects’ oxygen consumption, heart rate, perceived exertion and calorie burn. The second study measured activity in back and lower-body muscle groups.
“Across the board, none of the toning shoes showed statistically significant increases in either exercise response or muscle activation during any of these treadmill trials,” the authors wrote.
The different sole shape and cushioning might lead to different use of muscles and cause soreness until the person becomes used to the new design, the researchers pointed out. That doesn’t mean you’re working harder overall or that you’re toning muscles, they said.
Probably more important than the design of the shoe is whether it keeps you motivated to exercise. If the shoe is comfortable (and fits), wear it. And get moving! Or as our long-time visiting podiatrist, Dr. Voegeli was often quoted as saying, “take a walk for your health!”