Sneaker shoos away fat: An unconventional walking shoe

Karl Muller, the MBT's creator, devised the shoe to simulate walking barefoot on soft earth, as people in agricultural societies have done for centuries, and thus reduce the shock from pounding pavements.
Arnold Ravick, Washington podiatrist and sports medicine guru, is weighing in on the MBT, an unconventional walking shoe that has generated buzz on two continents for soothing joints, toning abs and supposedly slaying cellulite.

The MBT, which stands for Masai Barefoot Technology, is out of Switzerland, not Africa.

All the claims can't be confirmed. But the general idea is intriguing: Trade hard, flat shoes for hard, flat bodies by donning a special curved-bottom sneaker that makes muscles work harder.

No street sightings can be reported, but a sign in the window of Comfort One Shoes here announces, "MBT Is Here ... Since 1400 BC, a world of style."

The design was developed and brought to market about six years ago by Karl Mller, a Swiss engineer and former athlete trying to overcome his own foot and back pain. He devised a serious medical shoe that would simulate the challenge of walking barefoot on soft earth, as people in agricultural societies have done for millennia, and thus reduce the shock a body takes from pounding pavements. He founded the Swiss Masai company in Roggwil.

The buzz about MBT

The shoe, which costs $245 and up, might have disappeared into Swiss orthopedic history, except for a fitness-obsessed culture. Along the way to shoe boutiques, the MBT got a reputation as a personal trainer. It seemed that the extra effort required to walk like a Masai tribesman was good for sculpting calves and dropping excess inches, and maybe pounds.

A blitz of headlines about the shoe's power of cellulite reduction spurred sales in London three years ago.

In this country, the Bliss spa catalog promotes the MBT as a sneaker for "super serious slimming." It also coined the phrase "world's smallest gym."

Samples were tucked into the 2005 Oscar goody bags. A whispered list of celebrity owners includes Arnold and Maria, Warren and Annette, Bono, Yoko, Gwyneth and Cher.

Forbes dubbed the shoes "ugly clodhoppers" but recommended them for people who spend long hours on their feet.

Nanci Main owns two Curves workout franchises in Frederick, Md. She noticed MBTs in the Bliss catalog but waited until December, when the first shipment arrived at a nearby Comfort One, to buy a pair.

"I think it's cool," she says by phone. "It's kind of like a sneaker high heel."

What they're like

The shoes look like footwear, but it makes more sense to think of them as workout equipment. Novice wearers are told to figure on 10 to 30 minutes over the first week as they feel their way to "lower abdomen stabilization." Main says she took weeks to ease into hers, starting with a half hour a day, three days a week.

I put MBTs through a four-minute trial at a Comfort One here. Manager Chris Allen has been trained to warn of the effect on "core muscles." Two days after the samples went back in the box, my legs were still feeling a burn. Bobbling around a few chairs revealed nothing about cellulite, but lots about the shoe's design.

A layered rubber sole curves like the runners of a rocking chair. An embedded spring provides some bounce. The lack of a heel forces a different gait, with smaller steps.

To gain stability, knees can't straighten. Standing still feels like balancing on a ball. The whole thing works by keeping muscles on constant alert.

Mller was in South Korea last week and not available to explain in more detail. Conrad Casser, who runs Swiss Masai US from Sun Valley, Idaho, said that Mller wanted to simulate walking on sand.

My toes were not transported to the Caribbean, much less East Africa, where the Masai live. The shoe is hard, not cushy inside.

The Masai connection

If anything is soft, it's the Masai connection. Casser says Mller worked out the shoe mechanics while watching farmers in South Korea, rather than Africa. It's not clear who figured out that the Masai image would be more marketable. But company brochures feature a youth standing tall and dressed in brilliant garb. The photo is cropped at the boy's knees, so there's no way to tell what modern Masais wear on their feet.

Casser says Swiss Masai is contributing money to development in the region.

The shoe's aesthetics won't turn too many heads. MBTs are only beginning to work design into the shoe tops. There's nothing to rate inclusion in Sneakers: The Complete Collectors' Guide.

Casser says the company has hired three designers, from Italy, Germany and the United States, to improve the styling for spring. But shoppers will not mistake the boldest MBT for the blandest Nike or Reebok.

More than a million pairs of MBTs are out there somewhere, according to Casser. An estimated 200,000 were sold in this country last year, largely through the Foot Solutions chain.

About those benefits: Casser doesn't make cellulite claims. But the Swiss Web site does.

The company has paid for biomechanical studies, but Ravick says the research isn't solid enough to move beyond neutral.

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