Originally published 8/17/2010
I believe it's hype. However, the market for footwear with curved or inclined soles apparently is booming. More and more young women (the advertisers' primary targets) are buying into the notion that these awkward-looking shoes can help you tone leg and buttocks muscles, lose weight and shape up without setting foot in a gym. The shoes can be pricey ($100 or more per pair) and are designed to make you unsteady on your feet so that you are forced to use your buttocks, leg and abdominal muscles for stability. Increasing the activity of these muscles is said to give you a "workout while you walk," according to one manufacturer's claims.
I haven't seen any independent scientific studies that validate the claims made for toning shoes. The one study that appears to be most often cited comes from a manufacturer and included only five women who took 500 steps on a treadmill wearing either a toning shoe, a regular walking shoe or barefoot. The results showed that wearing the toning shoe worked the gluteal muscles (in the buttocks) 28 percent more than the regular walking shoe and that hamstring and calf muscles worked 11 percent harder. I haven't seen any research showing that the extra muscle work continues when you get used to wearing the shoes, or demonstrating that wearing them actually does result in a more toned and fit lower body or in weight loss.
Because anything that compromises stability increases the chance of injury, you're supposed to use toning shoes for walking and daily activities only. They're not intended for running, lifting, or any other type of vigorous exercise or for use in the gym.
If you do buy into the advertising claims and opt for them, get used to them gradually. Otherwise, you could end up with an overuse injury such as a sprain, Achilles tendinitis, or shin splints, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association.
I think toning shoes are a fad and don't believe most of the claims made for their benefits, but if wearing a pair gets you out and walking more than you would have previously, at least you would be getting more daily exercise. Regular physical activity can increase cardiovascular fitness and may lead to weight loss by boosting the number of calories you burn. Wearing toning shoes will not replace strength training, an essential part of any exercise program, or stretching for flexibility, the third exercise element that I recommend.
With or without toning shoes, I hope you're exercising daily.
Andrew Weil, M.D.