Do “toning” sneakers actually build firmer muscles?

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In the quest for a fitness regime that can just fold into your regular routine, “toning” sneakers may seem like an excellent fit — just don a pair of the curved-sole shoes and while “you go about your busy day” you can “burn more calories, tone muscles and more.” In fact, some of the manufacturers of such fitness footwear even point to a pile of studies analyzing everything from reducing the appearance of cellulite to boosting metabolism. Yet, do these claims add up? Do toning sneakers make walking a better workout?

To answer that question, the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a non-profit health and fitness organization that runs certification programs for personal trainers, fitness instructors and other exercise professionals and often conducts research on consumer fitness and nutrition products (*and, which a Skechers representative pointed out in a peeved email responding to this post, makes money off of people relying on personal trainers instead of do-it-yourself devices) called on researchers from the Exercise and Health Program at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse. The team of investigators, led by John Porcari, executive director of the program and a specialist in clinical exercise physiology, focused their research on three fitness shoes — Skechers Shape-Ups, Masai Barefoot Technology (MBT) and Reebok EasyTone. They also included a New Balance running shoe to serve as a control.

The researchers recruited 24 physically active women between the ages of 19 to 24 years and had them walk on treadmills in five minute intervals at varying speeds and inclines. While they walked, researchers measured heart rate, oxygen consumption and calories burned and also tracked participants’ perceived level of difficulty.

They found that, despite all of the claims, across the board the fitness shoes showed no statistically significant benefit over the regular running shoe. “We saw absolutely nothing,” Porcari says. Not only that, but participants said they didn’t feel any increase in the level of exertion when they had on the fitness shoes.

(*Skechers takes exception to these findings, suggesting that the small scale study does not compare to other research suggesting health benefits of the shoes. In an email to the Wellness Blog, a Skechers spokesman wrote: “Given the body of scientific research that shows rocker bottom shoes increase muscle activity and heighten the metabolic demands of walking, we think it would be unfair to report one contrary study without thoroughly researching and reporting the existing literature.”)

And what of anecdotal reports from the shoes’ devotees who say their leg muscles feel sore after wearing them, meaning they must be getting a workout? The researchers say that is likely due to the fact that the sole of the shoes causes the wearer to be slightly off balance, meaning that, while the same core muscles — quads, hamstrings, calves — are still doing the bulk of the work, different small, supporting muscles than the ones you normally use may also be called upon. “If I put a rock in your shoe, you’re going to walk differently and you’ll use different muscles and you’ll be sore,” Porcari says, “but after a while you’re body is going to get accustomed to it.” So while the shoes may indeed promote improved balance — fodder for a future study, Porcari says — his research suggests they do little to turbo charge a walking workout.

Still, if there is a benefit to these special sneakers, it may simply be that they encourage people to get out and walk more. Indeed, a 2005 study of MBT shoes found that women who wore them tended to trim body fat significantly after just a month, but researchers weren’t entirely sure that was just down to the new shoes, or a new routine:

“Whether this effect can be fully attributed to the increased muscular activity that has been documented for Masai Barefoot Technology, or if the subjects were motivated by their MBT to increase running performance and movements, cannot be conclusively answered at present.”

If they prompt you to get out and exercise more frequently, that’s great, says Todd Galati, director of the certification and continuing education departments at ACE, but he stresses that it’s the walking that will promote better fitness, not the footwear.

And while future research may support claims that the shoes can promote balance, Galati also said the opposite could be true — the instability introduced by the shoe may ultimately prove to increase risk of injury.

Whether or not these fitness shoes can benefit your balance, Porcari stresses that a shoe on its own doesn’t add up to a fitness regime, and if you’re buying shoes for exercise he recommends ignoring marketing claims and flashy designs and going with what is most comfortable to you. “If people find them more comfortable than regular shoes, and are more apt to wear them and walk in them, more power to them,” he says. “But don’t buy them with the anticipation that they’re going to tone your butt.”

*Updated to include comments from Skechers USA.