Anyone who has stayed up past midnight watching cable knows that there are a number of different gadgets and gimmicks that make amazing claims, and anyone who purchased these items knows that there is typically more hype than help. You might have noticed more people wearing what looks like orthopedic shoes in the last couple years.  These clunky shoes typically referred to as toning shoes are sold by a few different companies who claim that these shoes provide a number of health benefits, but not everyone is on board.

What are the claims?

Manufactures of these shoes claim that the shoes improve your health in the following ways:
-Improved Circulation
-Weight Loss
-Back strengthening and Posture
-Firming Buttocks and Thighs and Calfs
– Reduce Knee Pain

Impressive claims, but do these wonder shoes live up?  Of course that depends on who you talk to.  There are a number of industry financed studies on these tone up shoes (see skechers, MBT) , but very little independent research has been done to date.  The lack of independent research has been a major sticking point for experts in the field.

Regardless of the lack of research, the toning shoe industry is the fastest growing segment in the 17 billion dollar athletic shoe industry.  Shoe giant Nike has decided to stay out of this market. Nike spokesman Derek Kent said in a statement “Our focus is on creating performance products that really work.”  Reebok did decide to join the trend and their a example of their version can found here.

What do the experts say?

The response to this new shoe trend has been mixed amongst the experts. Claims that toning shoes can significantly contribute to a person’s fitness are “utter nonsense,” says Barbara de Lateur, distinguished service professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine in Baltimore.  On the other end Cary M. Golub, DPM, a podiatrist in Long Beach, N.Y, says toning or rocker-bottom shoes have a place in certain people’s shoe collection. For starters, these shoes may help relieve pain among people with heel pain, he says. “They take the pressure off of the heel and give more support to the ankle,” he says.

Are they safe?

There have been reports of a number of people who have hurt themselves including breaking bones while using these shoes.  The shoes are intentional unstable, which requires you to recruit more muscles, therefore burning more calories.  Think of using an exercise ball to do crunches as opposed to doing them on the floor. So, are the shoes to blame for these injuries, or are the people who are using them not fit enough to keep themselves stable and prevent falling?  It is certain that people who have balance issues should use extreme caution when wearing these shoes.

My take…

I was first introduced to these shoes when I was practicing in Portland.  A patient who had just moved from LA brought them into the office and asked me my impression.  I did my homework, but there wasn’t much available about these shoes.  Recently it seems that this style of footwear has reached a tipping point and I’ve started to see them showing up in my office in Indianapolis.

I know the benefit of training on unstable surfaces and my patient do also.  For my patients who have back pain, I have them strengthen their muscles while on a balance pad, exercise ball or  wobble board, but I don’t put everyone on the balance board the first day.  I asses a patient’s condition and determine what type of exercise is best for them.  Unfortunately a lot of people are misusing these shoes. Just as I wouldn’t put a 70 year old patient on a wobble board, I wouldn’t want them wearing an unstable shoe in places where they could fall.

From what I’ve read, these shoes have some benefit.  They are not for everyone, but used correctly they can provide increased recruitment of muscles and improved balance.   If you decide to purchase a pair of these shoes, take it slow and don’t begin with activities that require a lot of lateral movement.

Related reading:

If your interested in getting rid of your shoes altogether check out this blog post.