Health & Fitness

Shoes fit for fitness?

"Like Clorox bottles strapped to your feet."

"I had better posture."

"Awkward and orthopedic."

"They let me stand for hours at a trade show."

"Gag."

Ask Wichitans to critique the aesthetics and benefits of fitness or toning shoes and you'll get a wide range of responses. For the uninitiated, the fitness shoe — and its warm-weather incarnation, the fitness flip-flop — are said to be designed so that just walking in them will result in more calories burned, toned legs and thighs, and a firmer version of that region of yourself you can only glimpse in a mirror.

Many major players in the athletic shoe and sandal market have launched their own version of the toning shoe. And for good reason. According to a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek, manufacturers such as Adidas/Reebok and Skechers have seen significant gains in market share that can be attributed to their fitness shoes, while Nike, which failed to add a toning shoe to its line, has seen an erosion in its share of the athletic shoe field.

Sandal makers have jumped on the fitness bandwagon as well. You can choose from several styles of fitness flip-flops and casual sandals, so your toning program can travel with you on summer vacation.

The appearance of this footwear may be an acquired taste. The soles of the sneakers tend to be thick and roundish at the ends, as if the rockers of a rocking horse were mounted on the bottoms of your shoes, then half a tennis ball was embedded at the front and the other half at the heel. The flip-flops don't scream "I'm a toning shoe!" quite as loudly, and they come in many different styles, materials and prices.

Appearance aside, do fitness shoes actually get results? Can you expect to be wowed by a sculpted physique that can be obtained with the contents of a shoebox?

The physical benefits detailed on fitflop.com, the official site for one of the leading toning sandal manufacturers, sound impressive. Fitflops will "increase leg, calf and gluteal muscle activity," "reduce back stress" and "improve muscle tone," to detail just a few of the joint and muscle improvement claims.

Reebok promises its EasyTone shoe will result in "a better butt and better legs with every step." This can be accomplished, the manufacturer claims, because the shoe is designed to mimic the workout you get when you walk in sand in your bare feet. If you've ever walked briskly along a beach without shoes, the idea starts to sound plausible.

Some local experts are skeptical that your flip-flops or sneakers can singlehandedly get you into shape. One of them is Preston Petersen, corporate personal training director for Genesis Health Clubs.

"They're saying that changing your foot strike will activate your glutes," Petersen said. But the process and mechanics of muscle activation are much more complicated than merely the way your foot meets the pavement. He understands the inclination to want a quick fix. "I tell clients there is a magic pill — it just takes an hour to swallow it."

Kathleen Stone, president of the American Podiatric Medical Association, concedes that toning shoes "increase your use of certain muscle groups."

But, she warns, "We don't have a lot of data yet that really supports the (manufacturers') claims." Toning shoes are "not a substitute for the gym."

She also warns that people who already have foot and ankle problems can worsen their condition with these shoes. Those who constantly wear toning sandals may deal with muscle fatigue, tendonitis, ankle sprains and shin splints.

Lynette Chapman, a Wichita Realtor and a three-year Fitflop veteran, is lukewarm in her assessment of the shoe.

"They're hard to walk in," Chapman says. "Maybe that's the point." She prefers her MBP fitness sneakers, but only wears them when she exercises. "They're not real cute," she offers, "but I think I get a better workout when I wear them."

Physician and orthopedic surgeon Steven Howell is a big fan of MBT fitness sneakers, but not for the increased calorie burning the manufacturer claims to provide. He owns several pairs and often suggests his patients buy them for relief from the pain of plantar fasciitis and arthritis.

"They work well enough for patients that I keep recommending them," Howell said. Though he admits, "They look a little strange. And they're pricey for some patients."

Howell has had success losing weight, but declined to give his shoes the full credit. He describes walking in his toning sneakers as akin to "stepping in mud."

If you're ready to test-drive a pair of toning sneakers or flip-flops, they are widely available in Wichita in various price ranges. You can find selections from the pricey MBTs that begin at $215 to a toning flip-flop for under $30. A quick survey found several styles and makers offered at Birkenstock, Fair's, Von Maur, Famous Footwear and Payless Shoes.

Who knows? Summer fitness may be only steps away.

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