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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Your Health: 'Rocker' shoe is put to the test

By Alejandro Gonzalez, USA TODAY

Some rocker-soled choices (prices from company websites and

• Skechers Shape-Ups:

• Reebok EasyTone: sneakers ($110) and flip-flops ($60) for women.

• MBT:
full line of men's and women's shoes and boots ($130 to $390).
sneakers and casual shoes for men and women ($100-$115).

Not since Dorothy's ruby slippers has a pair of shoes come with so many promises. Promotional materials for Skechers Shape-Ups say these funny-looking, balance-challenging, curved-sole sneakers and casual shoes can:

• Promote weight loss.

• Improve posture.

• Strengthen the back.

• Tighten abdominal muscles.

• Firm buttocks, calves and thighs.

• Reduce cellulite.

• Improve blood circulation.

They'll help you "get in shape without going to the gym," according to the Shape-Ups ad campaign launched last spring. That's quite a claim. And the Skechers company isn't the only one making it: A company called MBT has sold heavier, pricier versions of these rocker-soled shoes for several years with similar claims. Reebok has a version, too.

The idea: The heavily cushioned rocker sole forces wearers to work harder to maintain balance and stand erect, engaging muscles that are otherwise less active. More active muscles burn more calories. The shoes also enforce a rolling heel-to-toe gait that makers say simulates walking barefoot in the sand.

"Rocker-bottom shoes are not new," says Marlene Reid, a podiatrist in Naperville, Ill., and spokeswoman for the American Podiatric Medical Association. But in the past they were sold as therapeutic footwear for people with medical problems, including arthritis in their feet, she says.

Reid says the shoes might help people who stand for long hours or need to improve posture. But she worries: "The shoes limit normal motion in the foot. So you may be under-using some muscles and overusing others."

She also notes that shoes requiring good balance might make some people fall.

Studies cited on the MBT website tell a mixed story: In some cases the rocker shoes performed better than other shoes or exercise programs; in others they did not. Skechers has not published its small studies, but a larger study has begun, says Skechers vice president Jennifer Weiderman.

I decided to conduct my own, unscientific test by taking five consecutive 30- to 40-minute daily walks in the purported wonder shoes. I even threw fashion to the winds and wore them out for an afternoon of errands.

As predicted in the training DVD that comes with the shoes, they were awkward at first. They slowed my pace — something I resented, since I depend on my heart-thumping, arm-swinging, iPod-fueled walks for both mental and physical health. Going down hills was particularly tricky. By Day 5, though, I was almost up to speed and navigating those hills with skillfully rolling steps.

Also: I do seem to stand straighter in these shoes. And they are very comfortable. My feet do not hurt. But: My calves, thighs and buttocks don't hurt either, an indication that this new way of walking isn't new enough to be a major muscle-toner, at least not for already-devoted walkers like me.

Any added effect on weight or muscle tone may be "negligible," says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. "If you are walking, you are walking."

But, he says, "if you are spending $100 or more on a pair of walking shoes, maybe you're going to go out and walk more. Anything that gets anybody up and moving is a good thing."