After years of suffering from back pain and leg neuropathy, Michael LaDue decided to splurge on a $265 pair of fitness shoes from MBT.
The special shoes are designed to disrupt the wearer's balance, forcing the leg muscles to adapt and work harder while walking.
In a matter of weeks, LaDue says, he found relief and a better body.
The shoes "improved my posture, and I don't have back pain anymore," says LaDue, 66, of Tampa. "I get virtually no exercise, and I've got a pretty nice pair of legs."
He was so impressed that he bought sandals and sneakers from the same brand.
Like LaDue, many people are forgoing dumbbells and aerobics classes and putting their faith in the latest fitness trend: odd-looking shoes that are supposed to work you out without your having to work too hard.
The footwear is marketed to consumers who want to burn calories, tone and shape the lower body, ease joint pain and improve posture.
The MBT brand, which was developed in the 1990s, has been around the longest, but companies such as Skechers, Reebok and Champion offer similar styles. And the trend has some serious legs: At a time when overall sales of athletic footwear are down, the toning footwear category has grown from $17 million in 2008 to $245 million in 2009, according to research from the NPD Group.
Researchers also found that more women than men are buying these types of shoes.
Samantha Simmons went shopping for a pair of Skechers Shape-ups recently after seeing a friend wearing them.
"She said they're really comfortable, and they really work out her legs," says Simmons, 37, a homemaker. "If I can walk around and get toned, I'm willing to give them a try."
But do the shoes really give you a workout, as some companies claim?
Tampa podiatrist Marc Katz bought a pair of MBTs two years ago after hearing his patients talk about them.
"I wore them to take a brisk walk, and the next day I was sore from my butt down," Katz says of the first time he wore the $250 shoes. "I knew I had gotten a workout. And they did make me stand straighter."
But the shoes aren't a magic bullet, he says.
"The shoes will work some muscles and may give you a little toning. But it doesn't replace a general fitness program," Katz says.
Katz says he found the shoes to be heavy, bulky and hard to tolerate for long periods.
People with foot or back problems should check with a doctor before wearing fitness shoes; they change the way you walk, Katz says, which could create problems or aggravate an existing condition.
Katz also advises patients with balance issues or weak ankles not to wear the shoes.
"Since the goal is to make you unstable, if you have back or knee problems, you could throw your back (out) or hurt your knee."
For patients who are able to tolerate the shoes, he advises wearing them for short amounts of time to work up endurance. And be aware of any joint pain developing that can be a sign of overuse.
Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise in San Diego, says he rolls his eyes when he sees commercials for fitness shoes that claim to take the place of a gym workout.
Most shoes have an elevated heel, which tilts the whole body forward and changes posture, McCall says. The majority of toning shoes are just the opposite, with a reverse, or negative, heel. Although they work the muscles differently, he says, it isn't enough to see real results.
"Walking is a great form of low-to-moderate exercise," he says. "But the intensity of the exercise needs to increase for benefits to kick in. It needs to include strength and flexibility training to change your body.
"On the positive side, if these shoes are going to get people up and moving, it's a huge benefit."
LaDue says his shoes encouraged him to walk more, though they took some time to get used to.
"It was almost like learning to walk again because you are walking incorrectly," LaDue says. "You can't side step, or you'll fall down."
Now, he wears the MBT work shoes daily at his job at Publix. And he wears the sandals and sneakers a few times a week.
"I'm on my feet all day, and these shoes have been good to me," he says. "I felt guilty for spending that kind of money, but the investment really paid off."
Rose Ellis, 55, says she had terrible heel spurs for much of her adult life. She has been wearing MBTs for five years and hasn't had a recurrence. She has also noticed an increase in the muscle tone in her legs.
"When I put them on the first time, I instantly felt relief," says Ellis, who works for the City of Temple Terrace. "They're goofy-looking shoes, and people remark about them, but they make me and my feet feel good."