The problem with the first pair was they felt like marshmallows, and people didn't like wearing marshmallows," says Bill McInnis, Head of Advanced Innovation for Reebok International. McInnis's "problem" began years ago when Reebok decided to make a new toning shoe and he started testing designs. The impetus was a similar shoe manufactured by a Switzerland-based rival in 1996. The company had made a splash with the Masai Barefoot Technology, or MBT.
The creators of the MBT had observed the agile Masai people in Kenya walking barefoot. The result was MBT - a shoe with a curved sole which, the company claimed, exercises muscles in the legs and thighs that otherwise remain underutilised. It referred to the product as "physiological footwear", and emphasised its wellness effects.
|Tread with care|
After walking for 40 minutes wearing the EasyTones I began to feel a twinge in my calves. Running was a disaster, my knees felt as if they were on fi re. Buy them to wear while running errands and ease into them. Avoid if you have weak ankles, shin splints or a history of knee trouble.
Reebok decided to make a toning shoe of its own, albeit using a different technology. A dozen engineers started work on the project in 2003 at the sportswear major's research park in Canton, Massachusetts, which boasts of indoor and outdoor turf fields, a 400-metre track and a basketball court. "You know how when you step on the Nintendo Wii Fit it finds your centre of balance?" says McInnis in an interaction on the telephone. "This is a way more expensive version of that." The result of two years of labour was the Reebok EasyTone, a shoe with two balance pods embedded in its sole. When the wearer moves, air whooshes in and out of these pods, creating instability.
McInnis says the effect is like walking on marbles or sand - balancing on uneven surface requires extra effort by the leg and hip muscles, which results in better muscle toning. The EasyTone was launched in the United States in 2005, along with a controversial ad that featured closeups of women's hips. Despite the high price - EasyTones sell for $100 and MBTs for $250 - customers paid up. Others also flocked in: New Balance and Skechers launched around the same time. An exception has been Nike. The US market for toning shoes was around $1 billion in 2010.
In India, EasyTones are the most prominent entrants in what is a growing market. Launched for Rs 5,999 a year ago, they have helped increase Reebok's sales to women customers to 25 per cent of its total business from 15 per cent. Although there is a separate line for men called the RunTone, EasyTones target women. MBT shoes are in a "test phase" in India, says Guido Heck, Head of Sales for Masai Marketing and Trading. The company has opened a shop in a south Delhi mall, and plans to open three more in Delhi and Mumbai over the next year. The shoes, says Heck, will be priced between Rs 12,850 and Rs 16,000.
Some experts, however, are not yet convinced. "In medicine we look for evidence-based research," says Shweta Shenoy, sports physiologist and Secretary-General of the Indian Association of Sports Medicine. Here the MBT shoes have an advantage over the EasyTones. Reebok points to a single, unpublished study which found that wearing EasyTones exercised women's calf and hamstring muscles 11 per cent harder than regular walking shoes, while activity in the gluteal muscles went up 28 per cent. A long-term study is underway but results are not yet out.
MBT, on the other hand, has an academy dedicated to research. There are 21 studies listed on its page, of which nine have been published. Since the company describes the MBT as a wellness shoe, many of these studies examine whether wearing the shoes can help correct posture or reduce joint stress. But none of them would meet Shenoy's standard, which requires a large-scale study conducted on many participants over several months or years. "I would rather buy good shoes and go to the gym," Shenoy says.
Reetu Sharma, 23, a trainer and yoga instructor at a gym in Delhi, has been wearing the EasyTones for a year. She says the shoes make her legs feel "light" - a valuable thing for a person who spends her entire day on her feet. However, toning shoes are no replacement for a good workout. They are not recommended for use at the gym or in a sport. Neither MBTs nor EasyTones can handle sudden lateral movement of a sport. But with size zero the latest fad, EasyTones are just flying off the shelves.