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 2011, sales of toning footwear—also called wellness or fitness shoes—topped $1 billion, up from $360 million in 2009.
With their bulging soles and orthopedic appearance, MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology) shoes were the first to hit the 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 at prices ranging from $30 to more than $200. You can even find toning boots, work shoes and sandals (FitFlops, for example).
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, exercising muscles you normally don't use during 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-review 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.
Morever, if you do experience an effect initially, the more you wear the shoes, the more your body adjusts over time. In a 2010 study at the University of Calgary, published in Clinical Biomechanics, 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 had been funded by the manufacturers, subsequently concluded that any changes or benefits are "probably too small to be of clinical relevance."
Toning shoes take a tumble
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.
More recently,the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a $25 million settlement with Reebok. Skechers has also stopped making certain unsubstantiated statements in its ads, at the request of the FTC.
A walk on the wild side?
Toning shoes alter the way you walk and this may help people with conditions such as heel pain and heel spurs. But this could aggravate matters 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.