Looks Like Those Ugly “Workout While You Walk” Sneaks Are Just Hype

Photo of Skechers Shapeups

There’s an interesting societal trend toward the path of least resistance, to the “magic solution” that will give maximum results with minimal effort.  The modern day equivalent of snake oil salesmen thrive in large part because the idea of losing weight, increasing sexual prowess, whatever in effortless and relatively inexpensive ways make for an easy bandwagon to jump upon.

Those ugly toning sneakers (such as Shape-ups by Skechers), the funny-looking ones with the thick sole that supposedly provides a gym workout while walking, are just the latest in a long line of fads that appear to have been outed as a bunch of hype.

$1.5 billion worth of hype, in fact, as an astoundingly large number of people decide to work out while they walked.


The American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned a study at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. Researchers compared people walking on a treadmill wearing a regular running shoe by New Balance and three brands of toning shoes: Skechers Shape-ups, Rebook EasyTone and MBT shoes from Masai Barefoot …

… Technology.

The test subjects walked for 5 minutes wearing each of the shoes at 3 mph, 3.5 mph and 3.5 mph with a 5 percent grade. While they walked, the researchers monitored their heart rate, oxygen consumption and muscle usage (abdominals, butt, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves).

“Based on our research, we saw absolutely nothing,” says John Porcari, Ph.D, director of the University’s clinical exercise physiology program. “There was not even a hint of something going on.”

The study found there was no difference between the regular running shoe and any of the toning shoes when it came to heart rate, oxygen consumption, calories burned or muscle activity.

“This doesn’t make the shoes bad or a total waste of money,” says Cedric Bryant, ACE’s chief science officer. “But you could achieve the same things with normal running shoes.”

If you think about it, the marketing that went on in this situation is kind of like politics—it’s not exactly a lie, but it’s not the truth, either.  Skechers and Reebok were right in that their toning shoes were conducive to exercise—but they’re no more conducive to exercise than any other running sneaker.

The basic concept of these sneakers is that their “rocker-bottom” soles are intentionally unstable, echoes of walking shoeless on the beach.

“It’s very intuitive,” says Leonard Armato, president of the fitness group at Skechers USA. “Walking on sand will be more effortful than walking on a hard surface.”

Armato says this extra effort makes your muscles work harder than when you wear normal athletic shoes, which results in more toning and more calories burned.

Um … well … not if the American Council on Exercise’s research holds any water.

And a look at the ad for Skechers Shape-ups makes it pretty obvious that no sneaks could accomplish all this—I mean, you might as well promise that they’ll chop up your vegetables and wake you up before your alarm clock every morning while you’re at it.

Skechers claims its Shape-ups will do even more:

“Shape-ups are designed to help you strengthen your muscles, including your back, abdomen and calves. Shape-ups will help you lose weight and improve your circulation, creating a healthier you!”

If you believe the ads, Shape-ups will also improve posture, reduce stress on your back and legs, firm your buttocks and tone your thighs – even reduce cellulite.

Not surprisingly, both Skechers and Reebok are questioning the veracity of the ACE study, with Reebok issuing the following statement:

“Reebok has never claimed that by wearing EasyTone a person will burn more calories or that EasyTone is a ‘magic bullet’ that will replace exercise. EasyTone is a great way to get more muscle activity from your daily routine and can be a beneficial part of a healthy fitness lifestyle. Reebok is a fitness company with a long heritage and history and our goal is to help people have fun while staying in shape. EasyTone is one way they can do this.”

You might wonder why these rad rocker-bottom kicks are suddenly getting so much attention, although I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that it started with a lawsuit from a pissed off patron that didn’t magically lose weight and gain muscle tone.

Last month, a class action lawsuit was filed against Skechers by a woman in California. Venus Morga says she bought a pair of Shape-ups and did not experience any of the promised benefits.

In her lawsuit, Morga claims the company’s “false and misleading advertising campaign has allowed it to reap millions of dollars of profit at the expense of the consumers it misled.” The complaint also alleges that some people have been injured by wearing Shape-ups

While I agree with the Skechers company that the lawsuit is frivolous, part of me just wonders what took so long for it to happen.  I mean, obviously these sneakers aren’t going to show dramatic and drastic results on people that don’t dramatically and drastically change their exercise habits … yet if you look at the dubious promises made in the advertisements, you could have seen it coming a mile away.

Anyway, there are also some legitimate concerns regarding these sneakers, whose unstable soles are an obvious balancing issue.

At Consumer Reports, Dr. Orly Avitzur, MD, is concerned that seniors who wear toning shoes could increase their risk of falling, which could result in hip fractures or other serious injuries.

“They are touted as this big miracle and actually for certain folks, they can be quite dangerous,” she says. “So if there’s no real advantage and some people risk falls, I think it’s actually more risk than reward.”

Eric Heit, DPM, who heads the podiatry section at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center, tells me toning shoes “redistribute the forces of walking” which can cause low back or knee pain.

I didn’t get a pair of these shoes when they first came out, mainly because I’m a Nike girl, but also because I thought they looked uglier than hell and I’m kind of a shoe snob.  However, it also occurred to me (in a fleeting, no-way-in-heck-would-I-put-something-that-ugly-on-my-feet-but-even-if-I-were-to-consider-it way) that I wouldn’t do well with the rocker-bottom thing because I’m one of the clumsiest people in the world.

I was honestly surprised by how prevalent these sneakers are, though, both because of their heinous appearance and for the obvious (well, to me obvious) scam factor.  I’m glad that the ACE outed them in the false advertising category and hope that this will allow them to fade into quiet oblivion.

Have any of you given toning sneakers a shot?

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14 thoughts on “Looks Like Those Ugly “Workout While You Walk” Sneaks Are Just Hype

  1. I know someone who ways well over 200 pounds, doesn’t walk any farther than it takes to get into a building from her car and basically downs a bag of chocolate every night.
    When I saw her wearing these sneakers it was all I could do to not fall down laughing.
    I didn’t buy any because I am obese myself and could see that it would take a hell of a lot more than wearing weird shoes to lose tens of pounds and get in shape. And I didn’t want people laughing at me.

  2. I will fess up, I belived the hype. Luckly I was too cheap to buy them. I walk alot, which is hell on shoes. I thought the round bottoms would quickly wear down unevenly. Reducing the lifespan of the shoes, making them an poor investment.

  3. My Mom has a pair of the Reebok ones that basically have little balance balls on the bottom. I know that she would call bullsh*t on this story, since the first day she wore them just to walk around during her normal daily routine, and she said her legs were sore that night like she’d been working out. And my mom is in shape to begin with. Like, seriously. She could kick my ass.

  4. I don’t believe the hype, but I believe the comfort. At least the Fitflop comfort.
    I can walk around Disneyland all day in those things and my feet and legs don’t hurt. 2 hours in my Converse and I have to go home because my feet hurt so bad. They also fixed some painful thing that was going on with my heel.
    I’ve noticed that they’ve been changing their advertising to focus more on the comfort than the workout.

  5. It’s always nice to have a company called out on their BS claims. Of course these aren’t magic. I wouldn’t expect them to make you lose weight, even if they burned an extra calorie per kilometre. But by making your surface unstable, they do force you to call in a lot of the little muscles that get no work at all in today’s stable-shoes-on-flat-ground world, which IS better for you, and can help in general.
    I don’t think the study actually measured that.
    Personally, however, I think the way to engage your stabilizer muscles is to get off the damn workout machines, get out of your massive absorbing runners, and walk barefoot on uneven surfaces like your feet were meant to. These things must be terrible for your feet, since their movement is so unnatural. I wouldn’t wear them. I prefer to wear shoes as minimal as possible, which don’t interfere with the natural functioning of my feet.

  6. @Kai: You could do martial arts and be barefoot!


    While I agree that the lawsuit may seem frivolous, in the end I think it’s a legitimate case. Like it or not, these companies DID try to pawn their product of as a magical fat cure when it isn’t.

  7. I do, actually. But I’m not so into the artsy part of it, and my choice reflects that. I also run and go barefoot, lift and go barefoot (where I can. Some places have stupid close-toed shoe policies, so I wear ultra-thin minimalist shoes), and when I need protection (snow/cold/wet/pointy/hard rock), I wear just enough to protect my foot from the problem, and no more stabilization or ‘support’. ugh.

  8. @Kai I am a big fan of barefoot everything which makes me want to try fivefingers (shoes) for places I’m not allowed to go barefoot in, but I’m cheap and broke and not willing to pay that much to try something that might totally blow.

  9. Are there no stores in your area where you could try them out?
    They are pretty awesome.
    If you are comfortable barefoot, you should be comfortable in the FiveFingers. I was skeptical about the stuff-between-my-toes thing, but I didn’t notice it for long. Correct fit is important though. I have goofy short toes (the second two are joined much higher than the rest), and had to do a little alteration work.
    I haven’t spoken to anyone who figured they would be good who was disappointed. They are definitely not for everyone, but if you’re thinking they’d be for you, you’re probably right.
    One note – a break-in period is definitely required if you don’t normally go all day without shoes. Every complaint I *have* heard has been attributable to this.

  10. I do normally go all day without shoes so no problem there and no I’ve never seen them in stores around here, just online. Next time I have some extra cash I will give them a try I think, I’ve don’t know anyone who has them so was a bit wary that they might be like normal shoe feeling with added toe rubber.

  11. Definitely not. The sole is incredibly thin. It’s just the slightest little bit of rubber underfoot – enough to protect you from broken glass, but not enough that you won’t feel a twig you step on. And there is no rubber between the toes – just the bottom sole. Thin nylon only between toes. It also moves really nicely.
    Just make sure you measure well if you’re buying online. And buy them from the official site only. There are a LOT of fakes around. They all have some sort of tell, but you don’t want to find out once you have the cheap product and they have your money..

  12. I bought the Sketchers following up on the back pain/posture claims, and I couldn’t be happier. My back gives me less trouble, so I call it a win. I also have to agree with the earlier post mentioning a noticeable difference in how my calves feel after a day of walking. Worth the ugly shoe factor? Undecided. Worth the money? My back thinks so.

  13. I have the Sketchers, and yeah, they’re ugly. But they really help with my plantar fasciitis–essentially horrible pain in one’s heels–and I do feel a little sore after wearing them to work. Are they worth looking like a dweeb? Perhaps not, but but they’re not a total scam either.

  14. I’d like to see the people who did this study look at FitFlops (and all of the similar knock-offs). They claim to do similar things as the toning sneakers, but without the ugly bulgy soles. They are the only flip-flops I can wear with my ultra-high arches, and they’re comfortable and supportive enough that I can walk 3 miles to work everyday with no discomfort at all… and then I get to barefoot all day at work which is even better for my feet.

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