Q: Are Sketcher’s Shape-Ups or MBT Shoes good to exercise in?

Masai barefoot technologies (MBT) is a type of shoe that claims to “solve knee and back problems, relieve tension in the neck, ease joint pains, tone and shape buttocks and thighs and burn more calories when standing and slow running compared to ordinary shoes”. Based on this “technology,” other shoes, such as Sketchers Shape-Ups have been developed. Swiss Masai, the developers of MBTs, state that these claims are backed by “scientific research.” After digging deeper into these claims, I have found that although MBTs may not be harmful, there are reasons why you should be skeptical before investing in these expensive shoes.

How They Work

The Masai, an African tribe that spends most of their lives walking barefoot, inspires the MBT theory. Swiss developers believed that creating a shoe that is similar to walking barefoot is “more natural” and may exercise the entire body, improve posture and gait, increase fitness levels and relieve joint pain. Therefore, they designed a shoe that replicates walking on “soft, natural, uneven ground” to force smaller muscles to to contract and control instability. In addition, the unstable rounded sole of this shoe is thought to redistribute pressure on the bottom of your foot more equally and reduce the pressure on your heels (Gait and Posture 2007; 25: 648-651).

MBT “Studies”

The MBT website has a link to 22 studies performed by their research team that apparently prove the effectiveness of the MBT. The problem with these “studies” is that only a few are published in reputable journals. This should cause skepticism because Swiss Masai could have hired any researcher they wished to write a favorable article about their product to increase sales. On the other hand, these claims may be true, but remain unpublished for multiple reasons. However, here are findings about MBTs that have been backed by good research:

– There is a change in your walking pattern and increased muscle activity in your ankle and lower leg that may improve balance. However, there is a change in knee bending during walking, which could cause harm to those with knee problems (Clinical Biomechanics 2006; 21:75-81).

– There is a shift of your body weight from your heel to your toes, similar to high-heeled shoes (Gait and Posture 2007; 25: 648-651). Therefore, MBTs may offer therapeutic value if you have a foot condition that involves your heel. However, you should not use MBTs if you are a diabetic, because they may increase your risk of foot ulcers. Keep in mind that these changes in walking patterns and shifts in body weight may or may not be beneficial for your body.

– MBTs can improve pain associated with knee arthritis; however, this improvement is no different from walking in normal good quality shoes (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2006: 1701-1707).

– The MBT shoe does not affect the large muscles in your legs (hamstrings, thighs, glutes), as claimed by Swiss Masai (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2006: 1701-1707).

MBTs may be beneficial if you have a foot condition if shifting pressure points in your foot and strengthening ankle muscles can improve your symptoms. Be sure to talk with your doctor before using MBTs, especially if you have diabetes. Early studies cannot yet prove many of the positive health claims by Swiss Masai. However, because these shoes have not been shown to be harmful, you can use them as a training tool in moderation. Limit walking with MBTs, or similar shoes, to twice per week to avoid possible overuse injuries.Finally, learn to approach new “too good to be true” exercise equipment or workouts with healthy skepticism. Proper, healthy exercise is a commitment in which there are generally no shortcuts.