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Soaring sales, wary words for toning shoes

Fitness specialists, sneaker firms debate biomechanics

Becky Clarke helped Sharon Bowler try toning shoes at Reebok’s Foxborough store. Becky Clarke helped Sharon Bowler try toning shoes at Reebok’s Foxborough store. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / July 23, 2010

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A little instability is creating a whole lot of cash for sneaker makers.

Toning shoes — which are sneakers designed with an unstable sole so leg muscles have to work harder to maintain balance during everyday activities — are the fastest-growing segment in the footwear industry, with sales expected to jump fivefold to $1.5 billion this year.

But the shoes, advertised as sculpting your legs while you walk, are also raising concerns about false fitness promises for consumers.

Some sneaker manufacturers are hawking these toning shoes, roughly $100 a pair, as burning more calories, reducing joint stress, and improving posture. “Change your life’’ and “Get in shape without setting foot in a gym’’ are among the promotions Skechers is using for its best-selling Shape-ups toning shoes, which have a rolling bottom that simulates walking on soft sand.

But some fitness specialists suggest the shoes could be doing more harm than good. A study released Wednesday by the nonprofit American Council on Exercise found that toning shoes failed to live up to promises made by manufacturers.

“Toning shoes appear to promise a quick-and-easy fitness solution, which we realize people are always looking for,’’ Cedric X. Bryant, the council’s chief science officer, said in the report. “Unfortunately, these shoes do not deliver the fitness or muscle toning benefits they claim. Our findings demonstrate that toning shoes are not the magic solution consumers were hoping they would be, and simply do not offer any benefits that people cannot reap through walking, running, or exercising in traditional athletic shoes.’’

Some reports of injuries have added to worries. Patients who have worn toning shoes for several months, particularly the style with rounded soles, have complained of pain and tightness in the heel, calf, and Achilles tendon, said Cindy Pezza, a podiatric assistant in Stoughton who oversees her office’s therapeutic shoe program.

“At first they say they love them, but over time we see some problems,’’ said Pezza, who bought her own pair of Reebok EasyTone shoes in December and has not noticed any firming of muscles. “You have to be careful. The rocker shoes are definitely not appropriate for the elderly or people who have problems with balance or feeling in their feet.’’

Other medical professionals question the value of a sneaker that requires an instruction booklet. (Skechers recommends limiting use to 25 to 45 minutes per day for beginners and guides consumers to find their balance by stepping in the middle of the soft foam heel, rolling forward, and pushing off with their toes.)

“There’s major risks, especially for adults,’’ said David M. Davidson, national president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. He has treated patients who developed Achilles tendonitis and stress fractures that he suspects were caused by wearing toning shoes. “Creating instability, on adults especially, is not a good thing.’’

Leonard Armato, president of Skechers Fitness Group, dismissed these concerns, citing company studies that prove otherwise.

“We are aware that people are injured in shoes all the time whether they have rocker bottoms or high heels or other forms,’’ Armato said in an interview. “None of those experts have conducted any studies. We’ve done numerous studies showing the benefits of our shoes.’’

Reebok noted that the American Podiatric Medical Association recently gave its EasyTone shoes a seal of acceptance that recognizes products that allow normal foot function, promote quality foot health, and show “evidence of usefulness and safety,’’ according to the association’s website.

Unlike the rocker bottoms used by Skechers, Reebok’s EasyTone sneakers feature pockets of air in the soles to help create resistance so consumers can “Get a better butt and better legs with every step.’’

Reebok’s toning shoes are breathing new life into the struggling sneaker maker, which is opening new factories just to keep up with demand. The Canton-based company expects to sell 10 million pairs of toning shoes globally this year, up from just 1 million last year. About $500 million in retail sales for these toning shoes is projected for the United States alone, making it the most successful Reebok shoe in a decade.

“It’s not just a design gimmick,’’ said Katrin Ley, head of Reebok women’s brand strategy. “It’s a technology solution that offers a clever approach to make fitness more accessible.’’

New Balance, which is launching a multimillion dollar toning shoe campaign, says its sneakers increase muscle activation by at least 27 percent and increase calorie burn up to 10 percent with each step using either a rounded sole or flexible spring sole. “What if what you wear Monday makes you look good Saturday night?’’ the Boston sneaker company asks in its online ads.

“Having tested our products with hundreds of consumers in the lab and field combined, we are confident that increased muscle activation occurs when wearing our toning footwear,’’ New Balance spokeswoman Amy Dow said.

Some consumers swear toning shoes have changed their lives. And even the American Council on Exercise study found that these sneakers can have a positive effect if they motivate sedentary people to become more active.

Stephanie Hall, who battled a variety of health issues after being diagnosed with cervical cancer, said EasyTone sneakers helped her become active again, lose 50 pounds, and ease her severe back pain. Hall, of Nashville, decided to walk across America in EasyTone shoes to inspire others to transform their lives. Reebok provided her with sneakers and clothing for the journey, but said it is not compensating Hall in any other way for the 2,249 mile trek that started in North Carolina in June and will stretch to Santa Monica, Calif.

“I have spoken to hundreds of people and large groups sharing my story of recovering from a terminal illness and how, with the help of EasyTone shoes, I went from using a walker last year to carrying a 50-plus pound backpack across the country,’’ Hall said in an interview.

While sneaker makers are wary of calling it a miracle shoe, they are welcoming sales of toning shoes, which now account for six of the top 10 best-selling athletic sneakers in the country, according to the latest list released by SportsOne Source. The high average price tag of about $100 per pair has helped improve profit margins for many of these brands in a tough economic environment.

Most of the shoes on the market are aimed at women but manufacturers are expanding the number of toning styles designed for men. Several brands have also rolled out lower-priced versions at discount merchants.

It’s an innovation that is appealing to millions of Americans juggling a busy lifestyle with a desire to be fit, along with some couch potatoes looking for a quick fix.

“Toning has struck a nerve with today’s harried consumer who is looking for easy ways to get fit,’’ said Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOne Source. “She does not have time to exercise but wants to have a more healthy lifestyle.’’

Nike, the country’s top sneaker company, has been noticeably absent from the toning shoe market. Company spokesman Derek Kent said the brand “is not going to compromise on flexibility or stability.’’

But Nike is looking to capture some of the business with a new model of its Free training sneaker that has deep grooves in its sole, mimicking barefoot running. According to Kent, the shoe can be used at the gym and on the way home for a “continuous workout.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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