Stability used to be a good thing in a shoe. But the current "fitness" footwear craze takes the opposite approach: By subtly throwing your body off balance, these shoes supposedly help you lose weight and sculpt muscles.
The secret is the shoe's unstable sole. To keep your footing, your body supposedly recruits and strengthens smaller, little-used muscles around the ankle joint. Shoe companies say the increase in muscle activity can lead to more calories burned, improved posture and toned leg muscles. Yet unstable or rocker-bottom shoes have been used for years as therapeutic footwear and there's little evidence they provide benefits that the manufacturers claim, said Swedish researcher Nerrolyn Ramstrand, who has studied whether instability shoes can improve balance.
Experts emphasize that it's the squats and lunges — not the shoes — that will revolutionize America's glutes; the health claims amount to hype and clever marketing. Toning, for example, has no standard definition so it can't be measured, said Benno Nigg, director of the University of Calgary's Human Performance Laboratory, which has performed paid studies for shoe companies.
Moreover, shoes with an unstable base may be inappropriate for those who have poor balance to begin with, said Ramstrand. Because of the instability, wearers are discouraged from running or jumping in some of the brands.
Still, some published studies show that unstable shoes do change your body's kinetic patterns and can help reduce knee pain from osteoarthritis. Unstable MBT sandals can reduce moderate lower back pain in golfers, according to one of Nigg's studies, published last year in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.
Shoes "used to just be for protection and fashion," said Nigg, who wears MBTs to help improve his skiing. "Now they're training devices that do something to the body's system."
When I tested five pairs of instability shoes — two pairs of walking shoes, one pair of running shoes and two pairs of sandals — I found they all did one thing: increased mindfulness. Walking felt different, and the shoes made me want to do more of it. Although some brands can be pricey and most claims are inflated, any shoe that inspires more exercise is worth a try. Read about (and see) the shoes I tested here.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun