Can a new pair of shoes ease your aching back, tone your legs even help you lose weight?
That’s the idea, if not the promise, behind the new trend in fitness footwear.
Brands like Fit Flops and Walk & Tone are among the newest players in a category called health and wellness shoes.
“MBT (Masia Barefoot Technology) sort of started it all,” says Ryan Schwisow, manager of Brown Shoe Fit, 829 Mass. “People have probably seen the Reeboks (EasyTone). Clark has them. Now, Avia and New Balance are coming out with them. It’s really starting to be a big category.”
The “physiological footwear” of MBT, with its curved soles and $200-plus price tags, seeks to replicate the motion of waking barefoot on unpaved ground.
“Our body is really designed and built to walk on dirt or sand,” Schwisow says. “When we put shoes on, it actually changes our gait. As we walk, we tend to supinate and pronate. While, in the sand, when you strike down on your heels, you wouldn’t want to bury them because it takes more force to get out. You stay on top of the surface, then dirt and sand would naturally fill into your arch and you’d push off with your toes.”
That motion, which constantly challenges the walker to balance himself, causes a chain reaction in the lower body.
“When you walk that way, you activate the calf muscle, which makes the hamstrings react and that takes pressure off of the knees,” Schwisow notes. “Then, the glutes react to the hamstrings and the abdominals react to the glutes, so they’re actually making your core muscles work as opposed to using your joints as shock absorbers. You’re going to burn more calories, too, because you’re firing off the core muscles.”
Lawrence resident Ione Unruh swears by MBT technology.
“I had had back surgery about three years ago,” Unruh recalls. “We were planning to go to Europe in the summer, and I was worried about all that walking. My physical therapist told me to try MBTs because they were built for people who needed to take pressure off of their backs. I tried them and, within a week I knew these were the things I needed to have on my feet. Now, I don’t have any shoes in my closet that aren’t MBTs.”
Physical therapist Trish Brabender says shoes like MBTs, Fit-Flops, with its trademarked “Micro Wobble Board” sole, and other imitators shouldn’t be viewed as a “one shoe cures all” fix.
“I think as far as shoe manufacturing goes, they’re going in the right direction,” she says. “And, I agree that by making you hit the ground in a different way, it activates core muscles that keep you in your center of gravity.”
But, Brabender says, there is a caveat.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that someone who pronates and has a flatter low back is going to benefit the same way as someone who supinates and has too much of a low back curve,” she says. “And you see both. It depends on where you start from.”
“The bottom line is, from a physical therapy point of view, everybody’s different, so not everyone is going to love these shoes,” she says. “I have a friend who loves her Fit Flops. I know people who rave about them. But, it really depends on whose wearing them because everybody’s postural habits are different.”