Who needs pricey gyms and personal trainers? Just slip on some toning shoes and toning apparel and your muscles will sculpt themselves as you head out to Starbucks for that Caramel Frappuccino.
That's the take-away message consumers may be getting from ads for these products. Reebok's toning shoes promise "a better butt and legs with every step," while their toning apparel will give you a "better body with every move." New Balance claims its shoes use "hidden balance board technology that encourages muscle activation in the glutes, quads, hamstring and calves, which in turn burns calories."
Some customers beg to differ. A class-action lawsuit was filed against New Balance on Monday in US District Court in Boston, with plaintiffs seeking damages in excess of $5 million, alleging that they were deceived by false advertising and harmed by the toning shoes.
New Balance spokesperson Kristen Sullivan said via e-mail that the company "will vigorously defend itself from the claims made" and that it "stands behind all of its products."
Yet, a small July study conducted by the American Council on Exercise found that toning shoes don't promote calorie burning or muscle building any better than basic sneakers. In the study, University of Wisconsin researchers tested three toning sneakers -- Skechers Shape-Ups, MBT, and Reebok’s EasyTone -- against traditional New Balance running shoes (not the toning kind) in 12 physically fit female volunteers who walked on treadmills. The researchers found no significant difference in muscle activity in such areas as the calves, quads, back, and abs when the volunteers wore the various toning shoes, compared with the running shoes.
Podiatrist Emily Splichal, a certified personal trainer at Boston Sports Clubs, tells me that consumers need to reset their expectations when it comes to toning shoes. "They’re great for walking and are designed to have you strike your heel first when walking and then rock forward, which is smooth and efficient."
The shoes are not appropriate, she says, for other kinds of movement like side lunges in an aerobics class, lateral cuts in basketball, or running sprints where you run on the balls of your feet. "The shoes aren't designed to have stability in the movement," Splichal says, "so they could cause injuries like sprained ankles."
Sullivan agreed adding that "New Balance's toning shoes are designed specifically for walking...the product is not intended to be used, nor should it be used for any other athletic endeavor."
Also, you shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the toning shoes -- which typically retail for $80 to $100 -- will burn fat any faster than that $40 pair of no-frills sneakers. "Don't have false expectations thinking these shoes will actually shape your body better and cause extra weight loss," advises Splichal.
While the toning shoe study author John Porcari wouldn't talk to me about the shoes given the pending lawsuits against New Balance and others, he did have a lot to say about toning clothes after I showed him a brochure on Fila's "resistance body toning system" workout wear that promises a "50 percent increase in muscle workouts" and "41 percent more support" than traditional spandex leggings.
"What do these claims mean?" wonders Porcari, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin. "How do you measure a muscle workout? I think they're purposely being vague." While the tight-fitting material might work to compress the muscles, he says, there's no evidence that compression garments put more resistance on muscles and cause them to work harder.
Lauren Mallon, global marketing manager for Fila, tells me the company stands by its claims and that she's a big fan of the toning tanks, shorts, and pants, which retail for $35 to $55. "The first time I did plyometric lunges in one of my aerobics classes wearing the Body Toning Collection," she says, "I could feel that my legs were working harder to move from one lunge to the next … and they do not make squats any easier!"
She also says Invista, which developed the body toning Lycra Sport fabric, ran tests in its Applied Research Center. "In addition, Fila worked with Penn State University to do follow-up testing," Mallon adds.
I think the big question here is whether companies that sell toning products are exaggerating their products' benefits given that they're making what experts say are dubious scientific claims. The Federal Trade Commission so far hasn't launched any investigations into these companies -- at least that they're willing to disclose.
Mallon tells me Fila hasn't been contacted by the FTC, and Sullivan says New Balance hasn't been contacted either.
Have you tried any body toning products? Were you happy with the results?
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