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Skechers scandal proves there's no shortcut to weight loss

Published 12:47 pm, Monday, May 21, 2012
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If you purchase toning shoes from Skechers and wish to apply for a refund, you can submit a claim form at www.ftc.gov/skechers
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Vania Isaac, owner of H.E.A.R. Fitness Studio in Monroe, knows that few of her clients come to her because they love exercising. They're there to lose weight. And if they could find a way to do that without exercising, they'd hop on it in a hot minute.

To that end, she's spotted some of her clients wearing Skechers Shape-ups, a convex-soled shoe that, according to ads, was supposed to help wearers shed pounds and tone their buttocks and others muscles through the simple act of walking in them. But, Isaac said, the shoes didn't help her clients lose weight. In fact, some of them complained of back pain, cramps in their calves and other ailments.

"These were people who never had back pain before," Isaac said. "I told them `Take off those shoes, stretch and come back when you feel better.' "

So Isaac wasn't surprised when she heard that Skechers USA Inc., which makes the shoes, recently agreed to pay $40 million to settle charges that the company made unfounded claims about the weight-loss benefits of Shape-ups and other products. Dissatisfied Skechers customers may be eligible for a partial refund.

The settlement is the result of an investigation that involved attorney generals from more than 40 states, including Connecticut, and the District of Columbia. Connecticut's share of the settlement is $88,208. In addition to the financial consequences, the ruling also bars Skechers from making any claims about the health or fitness benefits of its shoes without scientific evidence.

Skechers debuted the Shape-up in 2009, and the footwear cost about $100 a pair. The FTC ruling also mentions the Skechers products Toners, Tone-ups and Resistance Runners. These shoes became available in 2010 and cost $60 to $100.

Locally, medical and fitness experts weren't shocked by the resolution, nor were they surprised by the fact that so many people bought into the idea that a shoe could make them thinner. "Most of the people in our society don't like to exercise," Isaac said. "Even the people who come to my studio don't like to exercise. But if you want to lose weight, you can not get around having to eat healthier and exercise more."

Dr. Stuart Zarich, chief of cardiology and vascular medicine at Bridgeport Hospital agreed, but added that Skechers isn't the first company to promise customers a quick and easy way to get healthy. "There's been a myriad of health claims for a variety of medicines and lifestyle aides," he said. For instance, Zarich said he once saw an ad for a pill that could cure diabetes. Since diabetes is an illness he specializes in, he was well aware that no pill has been invented with such miraculous benefits.

Likewise, as a cardiologist, he's fairly certain that a shoe can't bring about weight loss. "I have no data that's proven that any type of running gear helps you lose weight better or faster than anything else," Zarich said. "It's the exercise that makes you lose weight, not the shoe design."

Linda Gottlieb, a fitness trainer based in Milford, echoed Isaac's and Zarich's sentiments about the appeal of these toning shoes. "People are always looking for a quick way to get fit, and they'll pay money for it," she said.

Like Isaac, Gottlieb discourages clients from using toning shoes. But not only do they not help you lose weight, some experts have worried that the shoes might be harmful, since they change the user's gait. Isaac said she's definitely seen evidence to support that among her toning shoe-loving clients. Gottlieb said her fear is that the shoes could cause calf injuries. And, given that the shoe can put new wearers off balance "they might be a trip hazard," Gottlieb said.

However, at least one professional said Shape-ups do have some health benefits, though those benefits have nothing to do with weight loss. Howard Harinstein, chief of podiatry at Bridgeport Hospital, said the rocking motion caused by walking in the shoes can actually help people with certain kinds of foot pain. "It does eliminate some of the discomfort," Harinstein said. "It's really not a bad shoe at all. It just can't live up to the claims it's making."

Not shockingly, Skechers is standing by its shoe. In a statement issued Wednesday, Skechers Chief Financial Officer David Weinberg said company officials don't believe the ads were misleading, but Skechers was settling to avoid expensive legal proceedings.

"Our company's goal has always been and will continue to be designing and selling quality, affordable shoes for our loyal customers," the statement read. "In short, we settled to avoid the cost and distraction of protracted legal battle so we could get back to doing what we do best."

acuda@ctpost.com; 203-330-6290; twitter.com/AmandaCuda; http://blog.ctnews.com/whatthehealth/