Whether you call them sneakers, "tennies" or gym shoes, athletic shoes have come a long way from whatever you (or your parents) wore to the high school or middle-school P.E. class.
In the last century, the basic rubber-soled utility shoe has proliferated into sub-breeds for every conceivable team sport, as well as more current fitness phenomena, such as speed-walking, aerobics and Pilates.
Athletic footwear has also served as a fashion statement -- from Vans in the 1970s skateboard heyday to preppie Tretorns from the 1980s to space-age designs popularized by hip-hop in the 1990s to swanky Hogan, Coach and Prada variations for power walks along West River Drive.
As people are becoming more health-conscious -- and walking is now recognized as one of the most legitimate and effective ways to stay healthy for all age groups -- function is once again taking precedence over fashion.
While fit, foot and ankle support are significant in what shoes you choose, some manufacturers are upping the stakes with designs that promise to do more than just look cool or sporty.
For some makes, the sell is in the sole -- be it curved, springy or round. For others, the new high-tech materials are intended to move people to amp up their work out.
One of the first futuristic lines to hit the streets, figuratively and literally, was Switzerland-based brand MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology), launched in 1996 and carried to U.S. shores in 2003. Prior to entering the athletic-shoe game, owners Jami and Klaus Heidegger (a World Champion alpine skier) steered boutique beauty brand Kiehl's Since 1851 to global prominence until the firm was sold in 2001 to L'Oreal.
From there, the couple turned their life-long interest in fitness toward developing athletic and casual shoes that boasted muscle/joint-conscious "functional" footwear technology.
According to MBT's mission statement, the human body is not built to walk or stand on hard, flat surfaces, and many conventional shoes stabilize the body in such a way that the supporting muscle system is neglected, resulting in joint and back pain.
South Korea-based RYN is another brand associated with pioneering the trend, introducing its complete "rocker sole" line to the United States through a variety of events.
On the Heels
Others have followed on the literal heels of MBT, RYN and other front-runners.
Thanks to breezy media campaigns, many of us are now familiar with Reebok's EasyTone, Sketchers' Shape Ups and New Balance's Truebalance, which, by the way, have color, design and options selections that would make the average car-dealer green with envy.
This summer, New Jersey-based Aetrex rolled its Xspress collection of women's runners off the assembly line as a collaborative effort between women fashion designers and fitness trainers.
Susan Ryder, the Aetrex Women's product director, notes the appeal of these shoes lie in the fact that they are specifically designed for a woman's foot by "removing the many layers often seen on running shoes, while keeping a clean and sleek silhouette."
Though the bells, whistles and frankly cool designs of this genre of shoes suggest the promise of an easier workout -- or effortless weight loss and toning without a formal workout -- an independent study conducted by the American Council of Exercise (www.acefitness.org ) suggested the shoes were not an instant cure-all.
Twelve physically active female volunteers ages 19 to 24 completed a dozen five-minute exercise trials in which they walked on a treadmill wearing each type of shoe.
The outcome suggested that there was no additional muscle activity or metabolic effect wearing a toning shoe.
Trainer Ben Greenfield www.bengreenfieldfitness.com  concurs, but does note that toning shoes have their merits when used in the right manner, spirit, and in conjunction with regular workouts with exercises geared to individual weight-loss goals or other health needs.
"My advice is to use yourself as a case study when it comes to selecting athletic shoes," says Greenfield. "If you have heel pain and find wearing a toning shoe remedies it, as wearing these do stretch some of these muscles, you may do well with those shoes.
"Also," he notes, "if you find wearing a certain pair of shoes motivates you to go out and walk more, as a special T-shirt or jacket may motivate somebody else to work out, go ahead and wear them. However there are faster, better ways to attain a more toned look for your calves, thighs and butt than just depending on the fitness shoes -- specific exercises that target those areas and work those muscles to a far greater extent than shoes."
Dr. Robin Ross, president of the New York State Podiatric Medical Association, agrees that the greatest benefit offered by the evolving fleet of toning shoes is the motivational effect.
Ross, who completed her residency in Northtown, Pa., and spent some of her undergraduate years at Tel Aviv University, notes that although toning shoes pose no specific health risks for most people, running shoes are better-suited for even more extensive and increaded intense workouts.
Many shoes noted for toning feature approval from the American Podiatric Medical Association "because they have been researched and tested to meet certain criteria," says Ross.
"On the whole, those shoes are fine for what they are intended for. In the commercials, the models are using them to walk short distances, not activities such as running or hiking," adds Ross.
"They are not designed for longer term, strenuous activities -- including extended treks around Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco -- or Masada -- because they would put too much strain on certain joints, ligaments, tendons and bones."
Though Ross does not discourage the use of toning shoes, she advises all of her patients, including power-walkers to first invest in a dedicated running sneaker, as they are lighter on the feet and tend to breathe better than other forms of sneakers.
She encourages women with wide feet to try men's shoes that comes in wider widths. She also stresses that you should always wear socks when working out.
Though cushioned socks are good, she likes the new high-tech styles made of moisture-wicking material that keeps sweat away from the body.
"When you're done, spray the insides of your shoes with Lysol," allowing an airing out as well "to deodorize and kill bacteria," concludes Ross.
"Finally, if you still have difficulty finding a shoe that fits properly, see your podiatrist to see if you may be a candidate for orthotics, which absorb more shock when you walk and hold feet in proper alignment to relieve knees, lower back and (of course) foot pain."