Forty-five minutes after she put on her new toning shoes, and just a few days before her vacation to Mexico, Sandra Yellin stepped awkwardly and felt a sharp pain in her left foot as she made the short walk from her office desk to the copier. A trip to the emergency room confirmed the worst: the medical-office manager from Westchester, N.Y., and my former patient, had broken her fifth metatarsal, the bone on the outer edge of her foot. Instructed to stay off her feet for at least two weeks, she canceled her long-awaited trip.
Sandra, like many other consumers, was lured by the hype. She thought that her shoe, an Easy Spirit GALILA, would be ideal for slipping on and off in the airport, and for wearing while sightseeing. After all, it was billed as helping “fight gravity each time you take a step” and sported a cushioning “system packed with millions of nitrogen-filled micro bubbles promoting a smoother walking stride.” Skechers Shape-ups and the Easy Spirit Anti-Gravity collection are among a growing number of products that claim they help build fitness by engaging the calf, thigh, and buttock muscles. Convinced by the ads, Sandra purchased two other brands of toning shoes with the characteristic curved, thickened soles. They never made it out of their boxes.
Americans spent more than $1 billion on toning shoes last year, up from about $360 million in 2009, according to research firm SportsOneSource. No doubt, the surge is bolstered in part by celebrity spokespersons such as Kim Kardashian, whose sexy Super Bowl ad for Skechers reached more than 100 million viewers.
Along with that growth are reports of injuries to SaferProducts.gov, run by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, including alleged fractures, pulled muscles, and other accidents. Our recent analysis of those complaints identified 36 reports associated with toning shoes since March 11, when the database started. That’s more than for any other single type of product in the database. Most of the reported injuries were minor, including tendinitis and foot, leg, and hip pain. But 15 of the reports were of broken bones, some requiring surgery.
And in August 2010 a group of consumers filed a lawsuit against the makers of the Skechers Shape-ups line of shoes claiming, among other things, that they “provide no health benefit to users beyond what any other ordinary sneaker provides,” and that they “have actually injured some consumers.”
Tests done last year by the American Council on Exercise concluded that "there is simply no evidence to support the claims that these shoes will help wearers exercise more intensely, burn more calories, or improve muscle strength and tone." And they raised the concern that "extended wear of these toning shoes may alter the walking gait mechanics of wearers."
Bottom line: If you have any balance problems, a history of ankle instability or sprain, or suffer from neuropathy, back pain or arthritis, pass toning shoes up. Even if you don’t, we think you should wear them with caution. And before you stroll down shoe store isles, check out the Consumer Reports Ratings of walking shoes.
See our earlier report on Skechers Shape-ups: A Wobbly Experience.
—Orly Avitzur, MD