If the shoe fits ...

As someone cursed with a genetic aversion to exercise but also biologically programmed to stuff as many double-cream fudge bars down my throat as finances and waking hours will allow, I am always alert to news, rumours and whispers on the wind of ways in which one can lose weight, tone up and get fit without having to put any effort into it. All hail, then, the claims of a new generation of trainers that promise to help you do just that.

But can it be true that what you wear on your feet can improve your health, weight, posture, muscle tone and circulation, as the various manufacturers assert? Perhaps the most famous among this modern breed are the R 1 446 Masai Barefoot Technology trainers (MBTs), worn by Cherie Blair, Jemima Khan and all over by mummies intent on maintaining their yumminess. The makers claim the shoes strengthen and tone legs, bum and tum by means of a sole that mimics walking on sand as the (generally spectacularly long and lean) Masai warriors do.
What really caused them to “fly out of the shop” says Glenys Berd, managing director of MBT supplier Lovethoseshoes.com, was their claim to reduce cellulite.

Like any woman who has watched her thighs increase at a geometric rate since puberty, I long for it to be true. But can it be? Podiatrist Mike O’Neill from the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, who works at Thames Valley Nuffield Hospital, gently suggests that a shoe capable of targeting unsightly fatty bumps specifically would be unlikely. “Any exercise will make you lose cellulite,” he says consolingly before adding, “if, indeed, it is possible to lose it.”

So much for my hopes of gazelle-like thighs achieved through a little gentle strolling. But hoping that they will aid general weight loss might be more reasonable, says Ron McCulloch, podiatric surgeon and specialist in gait analysis and biomechanics at the London Podiatry Centre.

“In terms of increasing calories burned, I believe that might be true, because the shoe is not that stable. I haven’t seen any studies showing an increased oxygen demand [as proof], but I have no problem with the concept.’’

O’Neill suggests an alternative application. “I’ve tested MBTs myself and they make your stride longer and make you speed up. For patients with arthritis in the feet and knees, they could be very good at helping to propel them forward with minimum effort and shock to the body, because they also have a good, shock-absorbing heel.”

Other shoes, such as Nike Free or Vivo Barefoot, try to replicate the barefoot experience in the belief that this encourages foot strength and reduces the likelihood of injury. To the relief of McCulloch and O’Neill, who express concern about the lack of shock absorption, they are intended as shoes for training and normal daily activities rather than sports.

A lot of the new shoes, including the Earth and Ciabasan footwear, use “negative heel technology” as their selling point. It means that the heel is lower (or in the case of the truncated Ciabasan, missing entirely) than the rest of the sole, so the wearer is walking at a slight incline the whole time and, therefore, supposedly toning and calorie-burning more avidly. The makers also claim the shoes correct posture and relieve back pain.

O’Neill says it is a good idea to rotate shoes of all kinds, with a variety of heels, to keep the Achilles tendon limber and prevent it shortening (common in women who wear extreme high heels every day). But, after that, the experts fall short of enthusiastically embracing negative heel technology.

“My concern would be that it puts too much stress on the calf and makes it more susceptible to injury,” says McCulloch. He acknowledges that some people feel better for wearing them, but thinks the most likely explanation is that “the [majority of the] injuries I see are due to the way people repetitively stress their bodies. So if you give them different shoes, they make different stresses. But that doesn’t mean that the new shoe is doing good in itself. I would need to see a lot more, and better quality research, before I was convinced.”

O’Neill acknowledges that the enforced realignment of the pelvis and lower back could help some kinds of back pain—“but only certain cases, and you must take the advice of a chiropodist or osteopath before you start to wear [such shoes].”

So it seems that my hopes of slimming down and toning up as I walk to the shop to denude the shelves of their latest confectionery are doomed to disappointment. Still, bobbing gamely along in the frothing waves of innovation/marketing genius/expensive gimmickry is the gnarled driftwood of fact. However outlandishly moulded or exotic the inspiration for them, your shoes are unlikely to resolve your lumbar pains, gazelle your thighs, realign your joints, straighten your warping skeleton or diagnose your kidney problems. What you need is a shoe that offers you support, stability and shock absorption with enough tread pattern left on the sole to stop you skittering about the squash court like an ice cube on lino. Oh, and the energy to get up off your bum and put them to use.—Â

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