Ask FGG: "Are the new toning shoes safe for big girls?"
Posted by Angela in Ask FGG,Sports + Recreation
Are these Shape-ups fat-girl friendly?
Dear FGG: I keep seeing ads for all these shoes that tone your body just by walking in them. Do they actually work? And are they safe for overweight women to wear? I'm afraid I'll topple over!

Lately, it's hard to miss commercials for either the new Sketchers Shape-ups or Reebok's EasyTone fitness footwear. Although designed very differently, both are based on a similar concept (decreased stability is used to engage and challenge muscles) and are promoted as a faster way to achieve a toned butt and legs, while also losing weight. To test these claims, I trotted into two local shoe stores for some fat-girl field research, where I spoke with a shoe-fitting guru for scoop on whether these shoes live up to their hype.

Sketchers Shape-ups

Although you can purchase these puppies in every style from sandals to boots to standard athletic shoe, two different staff members at my local Lady Foot Locker assured me that the rocker technology on all the shoes was the same -- a claim the Sketchers web site seems to reinforce. The signature curved, rocking-horse nature of each Shape-ups sole is designed to mimic the effect of walking on soft ground, where your heel sinks in and your muscles have to work to stabilize the body with each step. The unique design also gives the shoes a platform-like look and feel, adding a couple of inches to the wearer's height.

After lacing up the black & white "Strength" models a clerk brought out at random for me to try (a design I'd actually consider owning -- plus a name that matches my shoulder tattoo), I completed several laps around the store to get a feel for the shoes. Although I felt the "soft sand" comparison immediately, the shoes weren't uncomfortable to wear; at no point did I feel as though I'd fall over -- due to my weight or otherwise. Wearing them definitely forced me to pay attention to how I was walking, which likely affected my posture for the better. And whether it was just the increased emphasis on my stride or the actual science of the shoe, I did feel my calves working harder during the five minutes I tooled around the store.

Ultimately, although I remained curious about the Sketchers and would have loved to give them a lengthy, in-home test run, two things would likely keep me from purchasing them for myself. First, the price tag was steep--$110 for a pair of shoes I couldn't see myself wearing everywhere due to their just-plain-weird profile. But more importantly, the shoes didn't seem to offer any allowances for the way my feet behave when I walk. The straightforward arc on the shoe is made for people whose feet land 100% straight ahead and flush with every step, where some people (myself included) have feet that land at an outward angle, and others walk pigeon-toed. Additionally, I could occasionally feel my foot coming down along the outside edge of the sole as I strode, leaving me to wonder if I might at some point hyper-extend or turn my ankle in shoes designed to channel me into walking in a way that conflicted with my foot's shape and natural tread.

Reebok EasyTone

Rather than an elevated rocking-horse arc on their soles, shoes in the Reebok EasyTone line instead employ what the company calls "balance pods" on the sole and heel to create instability. I took my questions about this shoe straight to an expert -- longtime professional shoe fitter (and surname-phobic) José of family-owned and operated Murphy's Fit shoe store and athletic wear in Evanston, IL. Settled in a comfy fitting chair (which moments earlier had been occupied by local nightly news anchor, Mark Suppelsa as he laced up new kicks), I asked José directly, "Are these types of shoes safe to wear, or will they make a person -- especially an overweight person -- feel too unstable?"

With a wry smile (I'm guessing he's fielded this question often lately), José told me I've essentially answered my own question with just one key word: Unstable.

Using my own worn-out gym shoe to demonstrate, José walked me through his expert opinion on "toning" shoes: "Only eight percent of people will actually see any real benefit from these shoes," he said, pausing to laugh at my stunned reaction. "Eight percent of people strike on the outside [of their foot] and stay on the side. They're called 'supinators.' They tend to have a high arch and don't require a lot of stability from their shoes because their feet never cave in when they walk." As it turns out, because they keep their weight on the outside edges of their shoes -- where the EasyTone balance pods meet regular sole -- "they're the only ones who would ever see ANY results from this shoe. For everyone else, it has the potential to be dangerous."

Dangerous? Really? "Sixty percent of people strike in the back [of the foot] and roll through at least partially before their foot caves toward center," said José. These are "pronators," and I'm apparently one of them, although my feet don't roll in until the very last minute. "The [EasyTone] shoe isn't stable for pronators because of the placement of the [balance pod] ball. These people need stability when they walk so they don't injure themselves." The final 30% of walkers can be described as "over-pronators" who tend to have flatter feet and lower arches. According to José, these strides don't strike at the back but instead roll inward immediately, thereby also requiring a shoe with stability. While there's no "weight limit" on either type of shoe, the unstable feeling they create could be hazardous to anyone more prone to falling or turning an ankle -- big girls included.

Ultimately, after trying out the Shape-ups and getting schooled on pronation statistics as they apply to EasyTone designs, I felt very comfortable with my final shoe purchase -- a running shoe designed for pronators, complete with a 1/4" instep wedge to provide stability for my "ballerina feet" (as José described them). While the flashy gimmicks and promises of faster/easier/better toning and weight loss may be alluring -- and the shoes may actually work for some -- don't forget that tried-and-true fitness tips are tried-and-true for a reason. Have your feet professionally sized and your walk (also called 'gait') evaluated, then invest in a pair of shoes that  provide support where you need it. . . and use them -- often!

Have you guinea-pigged a pair of toning shoes? Tell us why you love 'em or loathe 'em in comments.