Image: The FitFlop
While toning shoes like FitFlops can firm up your thighs, they can also put a strain on your muscles, experts say.
updated 2/25/2010 12:23:46 PM ET 2010-02-25T17:23:46

Shoemakers have found a valuable marketing niche, and they're running with it. Wellness shoes, sometimes referred to as toning shoes or shaping shoes, are raking in millions for shoe companies. But are they actually firming thighs and butts, and making people fitter, as promised? The answer is yes and no.

And what you don't know about them could leave you in a lot of pain, physically and financially.

The details: At the end of last year, Sporting Goods Business reported that wellness footwear, including brands like MBT, Skechers Shape-Ups, and Reebok EasyTones, and the more casual FitFlops and Earth Shoes, would reel in $100 to $200 million in 2009. The projection for 2010 is even healthier and could reach $800 million to $1 billion. The earnings add up fast, considering MBT styles run about $240 a pair. Other wellness shoe prices hover around $100, but with public interest high, expect to see other shoemakers hopping into the game in the next few months. Women, especially, are opening their wallets wide for these types of shoes. In October 2009, toning shoes accounted for 20 percent of the female pure-performance footwear market.

What it means: So the big question is, "Do they work?" According to podiatrist Jeffrey Ross, MD, spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine and assistant clinical professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, the answer is yes—sometimes. "They work, but what you have to remember, because they have a rocker bottom and negative heal, if you have a tight heel cord or Achilles tendon, it can put tremendous strain on muscles," explains Dr. Ross. "You have to be really flexible, or do stretching, when you wear these types of shoes." He also warns that people should take care to avoid the infomercial knockoffs that are springing up, since there's virtually no research on their effectiveness.

Many wellness shoes, such as those made by MBT, are known as rocker-style shoes because the negative heel (lower than the toe) and curved bottom results in a gait that, the companies claim, improves posture and creates a natural instability that forces your buttocks and thighs to work harder.

Reebok's EasyTone shoes operate under a similar principle, except they tout two bulb-like pods on the soles to make muscles work harder. Nearly two dozen studies have found MBT shoes to ease knee, back, and join problems, boost calorie burn, and firm muscles. "The bottom line is, it does exercise the muscles of your leg and will tone your legs," Dr. Ross says. But he questions whether using the toning shoes gives you any benefits you can't get from regular exercise.

"Somebody's going out and marketing and finding a niche community to say, 'You don't have to kill yourself and run a marathon. Just walk a half mile in these rocker bottoms and get the same effect, and more.'" he says. "The question is, do you really need to get more, or not? I'm not so sure about that."

Here's what you need to know when it comes to wellness shoes:

1. Consider more practical alternatives
Before you blow your budget on a pair of these shoes, it's important to understand that you can tone your backside without special footwear. For much less money and similar results, you can incorporate balancing exercises into your day. For an even bigger benefit, try these strength-training exercises from Prevention.

2. Avoid heel hell
If you find yourself wearing two-, three-, even four-inch heels, it's definitely not a good idea to hop into a pair of wellness shoes to exercise. Dr. Ross explains that wearing stilettos all day shortens your heel cord. Switching to the other extreme of the toning shoes sets you up for pain and damage. "Dropping the heel with the rocker puts you at risk of a calf-muscle strain and tightens the hamstring," he explains.

3. Streeeeeetch!
If you're dead-set on buying wellness shoes in a quest for a tighter tush, be sure that you incorporate daily stretching into your life, or you're likely to be sidelined with pulled muscles rather than rocker-walking your way to firmer thighs. Check out these stretches from Runner's Worldto loosen up your legs. Dr. Ross recommends light stretching after warming up and before slipping on rocker shoes, and also post-exercise stretching. And remember, these shoes are intended for straightforward walking, not running or side-to-side movement.

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