Sonja Ohly had aching feet and knees after walking the lengthy stretch across Ibn Battuta Mall last year in a pair of flimsy flip-flops. Ready to drop, she trudged into the nearest sporting goods store to find an emergency replacement.
Among the standard trainers, she stumbled upon FitFlops, sandals with bulky and slightly rounded soles that purport to give you a workout while you walk. Intrigued, Ms Ohly bought a pair. She finished her shopping trip with her new sandals and has used them every day since. "They were so comfortable and my knee got better," the 50-year-old Dubai resident said. "And at home, where we have marble floors, I also wear them. It also helps your glutes. You suddenly feel muscles in your legs that you didn't know you had."
Tuck away those flat-soled shoes - this is the newest incarnation of the sneaker. Beyond just protecting a person's feet during everyday activity or being a sports tool, the newest trainers are said to be a workout in themselves. From FitFlops to MBT to Reebok's new EasyTone shoes, these trainers claim to help you use more of your leg muscles, either via the rocking foot motion induced by a rounded sole, or with an unstable sole that puts you off balance, causing your leg muscles to work harder to maintain the body's equilibrium.
Whether this new direction in shoes is just a fad remains to be seen, but one thing is sure: the technology is big business. MBT shoes in the UAE cost about Dh1,000 (US$272), while the RYN, a South Korean toning shoe with a rounded sole, costs between Dh600 and about Dh800. There are no sales figures for this region, but the number of pairs of walking shoes sold in the US rose 15.3 per cent last year from a year earlier, to $712 million from $617m, largely because of an eightfold jump in sales of toning footwear, the market research company NPD Group said recently.
"Although toning footwear has been around for a few years now, it has really only been in the past year that its popularity has taken off," the research company Euromonitor said in a February report on footwear. "Some of this has to do with better shoe designs, marketing and a growing number of mainstream players entering the market. However, there is a growing body of evidence showing that the physical benefits of wearing these shoes are real."
MBTs, widely seen as the first toning shoes, were inspired by the Masai tribe of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Karl Muller, a Swiss engineer who visited the Masai, noted their elegant upright posture and lack of joint and back problems. They walked barefoot, on uneven, natural surfaces, which is what inspired the design of the MBT, or Masai Barefoot Technology. "That's exactly how a human foot should move," says Ramola Philips, the brand and operations manager for MBT at Apparel Group, the local franchisee for MBT. "So when you're wearing MBTs, or if you walk in sand barefoot, it's exactly the same feeling."
The toning technology has evolved from the basic rubber and canvas plimsolls, developed in the UK in the 1830s, or Keds, which were launched in the US nearly 100 years ago, to modern trainers with the "waffle" sole. This waffle sole was developed by the Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman who poured a rubber compound on to his wife's waffle iron in the early 1970s. For Reebok, the new toning shoes have been the brand's saviour, helping to resurrect the once-struggling US company.
It launched its EasyTone shoes in the US in March last year, and by the fourth quarter Reebok's share of the US athletic market had risen for the first time since 2006, according to Bloomberg. Reebok is hoping this category of shoes will grow to a $1 billion category globally and has recently introduced RunTone and TrainTone for more than just walking. The shoes are selling well in the US and in the Middle East, says David Reilly, the chief executive of RBK Middle East, the local partner.
"That EasyTone, it's definitely like lightning in a jar," he said at the recent launch of the new toning models in Dubai. "It's just all across the place; it has worked well. And almost certainly been female-driven." The South Korean company RYN has sold its models in the UAE for about three years, but on a small scale to test the market, says Sheila Delgado, who manages the brand for Al Fajer Establishment in Dubai.
But as more people hear about these trainers, the company is gearing up for a boost in sales, she says. "We've had very good feedback so now it is time to make big business," Ms Delgado says. "People right now are so, so conscious about their health, but they don't have the time for it. For example, they don't have the time to go to the gym or for workouts. So might as well have something you can use every day."
MBT began selling its shoes in the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait in March last year, says Ms Philips. The group plans to sell the shoes in more of its outlets and perhaps eventually establish an MBT store. While the popularity of functional shoes has grown, one factor still deters some people: MBT and RYN trainers are clunky. "They're not exactly sexy, are they?" says Paula Savage, who conducts weight-loss classes in Dubai. But the comfort of wearing FitFlops outweighs their appearance, she says.
"There are some quite bling ones you can get now," she says. "I don't think they're particularly great to look at. I just find them really comfortable. If I walk in them and get an extra bit of a workout, then that's good for me." firstname.lastname@example.org