Over the past year, many people have asked me what I think of toning sneakers. More recently, several people wanted to know if they would be a good gift for Christmas. Jen Hnatko, a key member of our staff and exercises regularly, was also interested in the topic, so I invited her to participate in this column.
No matter what fitness goal you have set--trimming down, building strength, or enhancing endurance--most people would like to achieve it with as little effort as possible. This desire for a shortcut explains why so many people have laced up the newest "instability" sneakers from brands like ReebokR and SkechersR, which promise to increase muscle tone while you walk.
Makers of toning sneakers claim that their shoes offer the same benefits of the instability training tools like the Dyna DiscR or the BosuR which are used in rehabilitation by challenging balance and stability for strengthening and retraining of both athletes and elderly. In theory, toning sneakers also create an unstable training surface either with an outwardly-curved sole--as in the SkechersRShape-Ups--or with the placement of outwardly-curved discs in the shoe's sole--as in the ReebokR EasyTone's "micro-instability pods." Manufacturers purport that these shoes make your muscles work harder by challenging your balance and this results in greater strength and muscle tone.
The benefits of instability training with the Dyna DiscR and the BosuR are well-documented: these devices help build muscle strength in the lower extremity and core stabilization. Physical therapists often use these tools in therapeutic exercise programs to improve strength and proprioception for patients with weak ankles and knee ligament injuries as well as to improve poor balance and coordination from a lower back condition, stroke, or vestibular problem.
Although the ReebokR Company claims that its EasyTone shoes will whip your gluteal and calf muscles into shape, there is little research to support it. A recent New York Times article reported that Reebok's study included only five participants who each walked only 500 steps on a treadmill, wearing either the EasyTone or another Reebok walking shoe, and also while barefoot. Researchers measured muscle activity in the walkers and reported that those wearing the EasyTone worked gluteal muscles about 28-percent more than those walking barefoot or in other Reebok shoes. Hamstring and calf muscles worked an average of 11-percent more. (Remember, only 5 people participated and walked only 500 steps in this study)
The SkechersR Company provides a bit more research on the benefits of its toning shoe, the Shape-ups. The company's website outlines several studies that test weight loss and muscle activity in subjects wearing Shape-Ups. One study showed higher muscle activity in the back, thighs, buttocks, and calf for subjects walking at all tested speeds in the Shape-Ups. Another study with eight participants showed that after six weeks of wearing Shape-Ups, participants lost an average of 3.25 pounds, reduced body fat by 1.125-percent, improved glutei strength by 41-percent, and improved low back endurance by 37-percent. (Remember, these studies were commissioned by SkechersR and the results were reported on the company's website).
The Swiss manufacturer Masai Group InternationalR is a company that provides the most convincing evidence on the benefits of its "instability" shoe. While it is the one company that most American consumers probably haven't heard about, it offers the most comprehensive data on the subject. Masai has marketed the MBTR (Masai Barefoot Technology) shoe for several years and can cite data from several independent studies that prove the benefits of the MBT shoe. One such study, conducted by the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary in Canada tested the MBT Model Sole 2004. This study, which called the MBT a "mechano-therapeutic training device" showed that the MBT provides beneficial influence while the wearer is both standing and walking. While standing, lower extremity muscle activity increases in order to balance the wearer. While walking, the MBT trains the muscles that cross the ankle joint, they reduce the forces at the knee and hip joints, and they strengthen small muscles that reduce joint loading, which results in less joint pain. Also, walkers wearing the MBT shoes required 2.5-percent more oxygen consumption than when wearing regular sneakers, which shows that they burned more energy.
Although there is limited scientific research to support the claims that toning sneakers will firm up your lower half, one of the greatest benefits of these shoes may be that they get people to exercise more! If you believe that you're firming and toning more effectively while walking in these shoes, you're likely to walk more, and that translates into firming and toning regardless of what sneakers you wear. Certainly, the anecdotal support would lead one to believe that it is worth giving the sneakers a try. However, talk to your family physician if you have health issues and discuss this with your physical therapist to determine the best shoe for you.
Toning sneakers are expensive, $80 to $100. People who are weak, deconditoned and have poor balance would probably gain the most benefit. However, they may need more than sneakers and should use them with caution, supervision and as a supplement to a more formal rehabilitation program to start. Those with poor balance and at risk of falling require more caution. Users would be wise to wean into using them, 2 hours per day and increase 1 hour each day until comfortable. Do not run, jump, or play sports while wearing them. Toning sneakers may just be a fad and only time will tell. So, I challenge those who use them to make notes, analyze your outcomes, and share your experience with readers by emailing me.
Guest Columnist: Jennifer Hnatko – Jen Hnatko, has a BA in English from the University of Scranton and is employed at Mackarey & Mackarey Physical Therapy Consultants, LLC.
Tara Parker-Pope, "Firm Body, No Workout Required?" New York Times. December 8, 2009. Accessed Oct 18 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com>.
Skechers. "The Effects of Shape-ups." Skechers USA, Inc. May, 2009. Accessed October 18, 2010. <http://www.skechers.com/info/shape_ups_clinical_case_study3>.
Nigg, Benno M. "The MBT shoe and its biomechanical/therapeutical effects." Human Performance Laboratory, University of Calgary, Canada. June 2004. Accessed 18 Oct 2010 <http://www.mbt.com/Home/Benefits/Studies.aspx>