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Rocker-Bottom Shoes - Can You Really Stride Your Way Into Shape?

We've all seen the commercials - tone your butt, thighs, and calves with these miracle shoes. You know the ones I'm talking about - big, bulky things shaped like a rocking chair rail. Technically, they are called rocker-bottom shoes, and come in several different models from Sketchers and MTB most notably. Proponents of these shoes claim an increase in lower extremity muscle activation, which will ultimately lead to greater muscle tone, and a better physique. So can you really stride your way into shape?

It has been well established that rocker-bottom shoes can have a positive therapeutic effect on conditions of the lower extremity, particularly in patients suffering from peripheral neuropathy to relieve forefoot pressure. However, very little research to date has looked into the specific effects of these shoes on gait biomechanics and muscles activation. In fact, the research that does exist on the topic is conflicting with one study showing a change in muscle activation patterns, and another showing no change. Interestingly, one study did show an increase in energy expenditure wearing MBT shoes, but it was unclear if this was due to shoe design, or simply the fact that the shoes were quite heavy.

Recent research by Santo Roper, et al, out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, examined whether or not wearing rocker-bottom shoes would alter muscle activity of the primary lower extremity muscles or influence the metabolic cost of walking as compared to walking in flat-bottom shoes. Additionally, they looked to determine if the weight difference between rocker-bottom and flat shoes alone influenced muscle activity and energy expenditure. Specifically, the researchers hypothesized that muscle activity and metabolic cost would be greater during walking in the rocker-bottom shoes vs. the standard flat shoes, but not different compared with when walking in flat-bottom shoes with mass added to match the weight of the rocker-bottoms.

The results were somewhat surprising, especially if you work in the marketing department of Sketcher or MBT. The researchers found that there was no difference in energy expenditure or muscle activation between the flat-bottom, flat-bottom weight-matched, and rocker-bottom group. In fact, activation of the tibialis anterior muscle in the lower leg was actually lower when wearing the rocker-bottom shoe.

So, what are the practical applications of this study? First, do not discount the potential benefits of prescribing a rocker-bottom shoe as part of a rehab plan for patients with lower extremity injury, especially neuropathies.

However, due to the lack of efficacy of this shoe type to significantly change gait biomechanics and energy expenditure, caution should be taken when counseling non-injured individuals regarding potential changes in footwear.