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Published January 04, 2010, 12:00 AM

Is this shoe off on the wrong foot?

New fitness sneakers with rocking soles have some skeptical of their claims
A popular new type of sneaker is rocking the footwear world with thick, curved soles that create an unsteady platform.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

A popular new type of sneaker is rocking the footwear world with thick, curved soles that create an unsteady platform.

Shoe companies, including Reebok and Skechers, say the design of these “toning” shoes mimics walking barefoot or on sand. They say the shoes increase muscle activity, promote weight loss, tone the lower body and improve posture and balance. People who wear them say they are comfortable.

But foot and fitness experts are skeptical of their claims.

“If you wear the shoes, you will have muscles firing at a higher rate than if you wear a normal pair of shoes. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to increased muscle strength. It certainly doesn’t lead to weight loss or nicer hips, buns, thighs,” says Dr. Dan Ostlie, who specializes in medical orthopedics and sports medicine at Fargo’s Innovis Health.

Regardless, the shoes are popular. Scheels All Sports in Fargo has received two shipments of Reebok’s EasyTone shoes, and both sold out within a day or two, says Katie Engebretson, who’s sold shoes there for four years. Another shipment is expected in February.

Engebretson credits Reebok’s marketing with making the shoes fly off the shelves.

“The ads have really helped with people coming in. We get numerous people asking about them everyday,” Engebretson says.

In one of these Reebok commercials, the camera lens keeps wandering to the fit spokeswoman’s firm lower body. Another ad features a pair of breasts talking enviously about the shoe wearer’s cute butt getting all the attention now.

Ads for this new batch of toning shoes have also piqued curiosity in the curved-sole MBT shoes, which have been around for years but haven’t been heavily marketed, says Wendi Hepola, manager of R&G Shoes in West Acres.

“We definitely have more people coming in because they’ve heard about them more,” Hepola says.

Founded in the 1990s as an alternative to flat-soled shoes, the MBT shoes challenge the body, Hepola says, making wearers use their core muscles.

The day after wearing them for the first time, Hepola says her backside and the back of her legs were “tight and sore like I had been working out at the gym all day.”

“A lot of people like the fact that you can wear them as your everyday shoe and it’s going to boost up your workout. You can wear them to the supermarket and it’s like going to the gym,” she says.

R&G Shoes has sold MBTs for about four years. The store has a wall of MBT sneakers, sandals and even dressy versions. They sell for about $250.

Shannon Charpentier of Fargo first saw a pair of MBTs at R&G Shoes about four years ago.

“They looked a little clunky and were quite expensive,” Charpentier says. But when she heard about the benefits, she bought a pair.

“They really do work. I love them,” she says. “You can feel it in your leg and your calf and your butt muscles.”

Skechers Shape-ups have a rocker sole, similar to the MBTs, Engebretson says, while the Reebok EasyTone shoes simulate standing on a Bosu exercise ball. “You have to balance while you’re walking. That will tone your glutes and legs,” she says.

Ostlie, the physician, likens these sort of shoes to wearing a walking boot or cast on one foot. The other side will work harder, and will feel stiff or sore the next day, but that doesn’t lead to long-term fitness.

Wearing the shoes would increase muscle strength in the foot, Ostlie says. The wearer’s balance would also improve in the shoes, but Ostlie isn’t sure that would translate into better balance in everyday life.

Dr. Timothy Uglem, a podiatrist with MeritCare in Fargo, agrees walking in an unstable shoe can improve balance, but said he would be concerned if someone with balance issues, such as an elderly person, wore them.

“It certainly could lead to issues such as falling,” he says.

Overall, though, Uglem doesn’t have a strong opinion about the shoes. “I don’t think they’re necessarily good. I don’t think they’re bad. I don’t think we know,” he says. “Certainly I have had numerous patients come into my office and say it’s the greatest thing.”

Theoretically, taking the weight off of the heel if somebody is having heel pain makes sense, Uglem says. But he isn’t sure whether putting more weight toward the toes would necessarily help.

The toning results touted by the companies come from studies funded by the shoe companies, Uglem says. Independent, peer-reviewed studies that Uglem researched did not find the same results.

The “proven” study results advertised by the companies – such as 28 percent more muscle activation in the gluteus maximus muscles – don’t ring true to John Taylor, a certified personal and athletic trainer and health specialist based in North Carolina. He’s been speaking out against the shoes nationally. “I really feel like they’re misleading people,” he says.

He also finds the advertising campaigns featuring taut spokeswomen deceiving. “She does a lot more in her daily routine than walk around the neighborhood in these shoes,” he says. “It wouldn’t hurt for a walking regimen. But how much good would it do? I don’t know.”

Ostlie also thinks the shoes need more solid research. But he’s inclined to say they’re a fitness fad.

“We all want to find a way of being fit and healthy in a way that fits with our busy schedules, but I don’t think the shoes are necessarily going to create long-term wellness,” Ostlie says.

“If you have $300 to spend and you want to spend it to get in shape, you should spend it on the gym, or buy a $100 pair of shoes and get into a walking program.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556

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