“Fitness” Shoes Start Exercise Craze

April 20, 2010  

by Katherine Bruce

Drenched in perspiration, a woman reaches for ten-pound weights with a fresh look of determination. Across from her at the Equinox Fitness Club on Oak Lawn Ave., another walks on the treadmill. Next to her, a woman finishes her treadmill run with a sigh and embarks on a cool-down walk.

One thing these women have in common?

Their shoes.

Since the first pair of muscle-activating “fitness” shoes hit the market six or seven years ago, they have become must-haves for exercisers. Eager for instant gratification, customers are flocking to shoe stores all over the country in search of them.

“I had a hard time tracking them down,” said SMU senior Kelly Curtis.

Swedish scientist Karl Muller developed the original fitness shoes: MBT shoes, which stand for Masai Balance Technology. Muller developed the shoe after studying the Masai tribe in Africa. The members of the tribe run barefoot. Muller observed the tribe for long periods of time noting how their bare feet gives them superior posture and toned muscles.

He developed the shoe using a rounded midsole with what he called a “Masai pivot,” which is a wedge material in the heel designed to engage more muscles than regular walking shoes. The shoes force the wearer to use core and lower-back muscles, which firm up abdominal, leg and buttock muscles while burning more calories, say shoe experts.

Carter Latham, a senior sales worker at the Dallas shoe store Luke’s Locker, says the MBT shoes are geared towards a market dominated by women. Similar to the diet pill craze, women eat up any idea that promises results without the work, he said.

“They want to do things to help their physiology without really thinking about it,” Latham said.

While the shoes appear to be an easy solution for improving some muscles, fitness trainer Phillip Grau at Equinox gym still stresses the importance of good, old-fashion diet and exercise. Grau says the best way to improve your figure is through resistance training. He puts his clients on a three-day-a-week resistance program with cardiovascular exercise on two other days.

“If you’re looking to tone legs and build lean muscle mass it’s going to give you that,” Grau said.

Grau also advises clients to focus on nutrition in addition to their gym workouts. Diet alone can affect 50 to 80 percent of your results. He says clients should see real physical improvement and toning in just six to eight weeks.

The MBT shoes run about $200-250. Other shoe companies have been quick to capitalize on the success of the MBT brand, making products that are less expensive.

This past October, Sketchers came out with Shape-Ups, a shoe designed similar to the MBT’s and promising to target the same areas. Shape-Ups run about $110 and come with a DVD explaining how to use the shoes for the best results.

In November, Reebok came out with the Easytones, which run about $100 and come with a manual explaining how to get the most out of the walking shoes. The shoes are designed with “balance pods” to force the wearer to engage more muscles.

Harry Gibson, store manager at Finish Line in North Park, said the Reebok Easytones are more popular than the Sketcher Shape-Ups. Finish Line was completely out of the Easytones during the holiday season because the demand for the shoe was so high.

“Reebok couldn’t keep us stocked,” Gibson said.

A recent study by the University of Delaware claimed the Reebok Easytones provide 28 percent more gluteus maximus muscle activation and 11 percent more calf and hamstring activation. However, only five people were included in the study.

There are definite downsides to the fitness shoes. MBT’s, Shape-Ups and Easytones are designed for walking, and because of the instability of the design, wearers are discouraged from running, jumping or engaging in other athletic activities while wearing them. The real effect of the shoe may come from the simple fact that they are a muscle-activating shoe.

Like many buyers around the country, SMU students were eager to see what all the hype was about. SMU senior Cassie Gill purchased a pair of Easytones to help her get in better shape while she went on walks. Just wearing them twice a week or on the way to class Gill has already noticed a difference.

“They make me feel sorer than regular running shoes,” she said.

Curtis hasn’t seen any results, though she would still recommend the shoes to girlfriends.

“They at least make you feel like you’re helping yourself,” she said.

While it remains unproven whether the shoes are delivering results, the idea of the shoes is promoting overall health. Wearers are likely increasing their daily activity in the shoes, thus increasing their levels of exercise and physical fitness.

MBT has already begun to make improvements on the shoe by coming out with a lighter and more stylish design. Reebok also keeps coming out with different colors of Easytones, even adding flip-flops to the Easytone brand.

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