Toning Shoes … Guilty or Not Guilty? You Be the Judge

By: Erin Davis

At my latest Zumba exercise class (while doing my usual uncoordinated, fish-out-of-water flail), I spied a curious pair of shoes on the feet of a fellow participant. I skeptically appraised their 1-to-2-inch heel, wondering, “Can people really work out in those things?” The woman appeared far more surefooted than I (and I wasn’t sporting high-heeled sneakers), so in that instance, the answer was obviously yes.

All skepticism aside, “those things” are all the rage in fitness right now. In fact, toning shoes, as they’re commonly called, “are the fastest growing sector of the shoe market,” says John Kearny Jr., MD, Medical Director of Arizona Sports Medicine Society and Director of Sports Medicine for Phoenix Baptist Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program. Marketable they may be, but do they hold up to their promises? You be the judge.

The Case for Toning Shoes
The claim of many brand-name toning-shoe manufacturers is that their shoes tone muscles (specifically those of the hips, glutes and thighs), promote a healthy lifestyle, and are, of course, stylish. According to the manufacturer’s website, the New Balance 850 athletic toning shoe series features a “breakthrough balance board technology” that offers “comfort with enhanced muscle toning and calorie burning” capability. If you’d prefer layman’s terms, just think about Kim Kardashian’s assertion (think her smoking-hot Super Bowl commercial debut) that Sketchers Shape-up shoes will quickly transform your smoking not-ness into smoking hotness, compelling you to swap your personal trainer for a cute pair of pink Sketchers Shape-ups.

Does this mean that athletic trainers will soon face extinction by the hand—or rather feet—of toning-shoe manufacturers? Perhaps not. “I have reservations about a shoe that claims to tone the hips, buns and thighs,” says Erica Porterfield, BS Fitness & Sport Management, ACE. She adds, however, that after 22 years in fitness, “I try not to discount any new or trendy fitness craze if it can get folks up off their sofas and into being more active.”

The Evidence
It’s no wonder the athletic shoe division is gaining massive success from a shoe prototype that claims to embody supersized toning capability. “There is a push for core stabilization in current fitness trends, encouraging utilization of technique that promotes less stabilization, which in turn causes you to engage your core,” says Kearney. “[Toning shoes also] take away the natural heal strike of the foot, causing you to engage your muscle in a more natural way, as when barefoot.”

Before you cast off your impeccably pecked trainer, you might want to consider this: “Of course, folks initially feel different in [toning shoes]; there is at least one inch of cushion,” says Porterfield. “The shoes are also curved, causing other muscles to be used as the body adjusts to the difference.” The larger question, on which research currently falls short, concerns the longer-term benefits (if any) of wearing toning shoes.

Deliberation: Guilty or Not Guilty

“The bottom line,” says Kearney, “is that non- industry small studies fail to validate an increase in fitness or decrease in muscle pain or joints as a result of wearing toning shoes.” One such study from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, as explained by way of the American Council on Exercise, noted, “There was simply no evidence to indicate that the toning shoes offer any enhanced fitness benefits over traditional sneakers, despite studies cited by manufacturers seemingly ‘proving’ the toning shoes’ effectiveness” (Lane 2010).

Kearney also goes on to say, “I have seen more than a handful of patients who develop significant joint pain in their knees and hips after beginning to wear these shoes. In my experience, these patients have tended to be older patients who had some underlying issues to begin with. However, these shoes certainly seemed to exacerbate/aggravate their conditions.” So far, it appears that the studies conducted and funded by manufacturers claiming the super-toning power of their toning shoes are, as Kearney puts it, “grossly overstated.”

Verdict: The Jury’s Still Out

Although physicians like Kearney and personal trainers like Porterfield seem split on toning shoes’ promises to tone and sculpt muscles, their closing statements aptly summarize the case up to this point. “I don't think there is much harm in the average person trying them (except maybe in the pocketbook),” says Kearney. This is a considerable investment indeed, as toning shoe prices range from $40 to around $100.

Perhaps more importantly, Kearney cautions, “Don't expect a miracle.” Porterfield adds, “A key point to keep in mind when reading the blogs and hype on toning shoes is that people who previously have been inactive are now active, thus seeing and feeling a physical difference. This can be said, however, regardless of what type of athletic shoe one wears.”

Lane, Karen. 2010 (July 28). Shape-Up Shoes Not Worth It. Retrieved on March 11, 2011, from

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