Many of us have heard the story of two salesmen from two separate shoe-manufacturing companies who traveled to Africa in early colonial times. As the story goes, one of the salesmen returned home with the report that there was no market in Africa for shoes because Africans do not wear shoes. The second salesman returned home and reported that Africa was a huge market because no one had shoes.
The story came to mind when one of my Tai Chi students told me about a specific type of shoe that is prescribed in Europe and North America for arthritis patients and which also is popular among “hip” folks, no pun intended. This is no ordinary shoe, for its construction was inspired by the gait of the Masai people of Kenya. Fittingly, the shoes are called Masai Barefoot Technology, or MBTs, and sell for $250 and up a pair.
I have since learned that the sneaker-looking MBTs are soothers of joints, toners of abs and slayers of cellulite. They are said to strengthen and tone muscles in the feet, legs, buttocks, stomach, and back; increase muscle activity and circulation; relieve muscular tension, back and joint problems and lead to a relaxed upright posture and stride. They are all the rage among hikers, walkers and professional athletes, who rely on them “for regeneration, prevention and accelerated healing of injuries and in endurance and coordination training,” according to one Web site. They are also popular among Hollywood celebrities—Heidi Klum, Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, the cast from Grey’s Anatomy, are cases in point. Wearing MBTs, proponents say, reestablishes our natural conditions of standing and walking.
The developer MBTs were developed in the 1990s by Karl Müller, a Swiss engineer and former athlete who suffered from serious knee, Achilles tendon and back problems. During a visit to Korea, Müller observed that his pain lessened considerably when he walked barefoot on the soft, uneven surfaces of rice paddies, but worsened when he walked in shoes on flat, hard and even surfaces. For further research, he went to Kenya to observe the Masai. Not only is backache unknown among the Masai, he learned, but by walking barefoot on the natural, soft, uneven ground of their homeland, the Masai also activate muscles that atrophy when you walk on hard, even surfaces wearing conventional shoes.
Müller returned to Switzerland to develop a shoe that would bring the benefits of walking on soft, natural ground to those who have to walk on hard surfaces. His company, Swiss Masai AG (swissmasai.com), is located in Roggwil, Switzerland. Its U.S. marketing arm, Masai USA Corp., is in Halley, Idaho.
Physiological footwear What’s the secret behind this Masai-inspired footwear? Physicians in North America and Europe use MBTs for therapy and rehabilitation. They hail it as a revolutionary, physiological footwear. The shoe’s multi-layered rubber sole curves like the runners of a rocking chair, transforming flat, hard, artificial surfaces into natural, uneven ground. With an embedded spring providing some bounce, wearing MBTs has the effect of walking in sand. The reactive, more supportive muscle action creates good posture and increases shock absorption for all the joints, significantly reducing muscular-skeletal compression.
The shoes come with instructions, which should be strictly followed. My student, who has arthritic knees, bought a pair and tried them on her own. “In their booklet they say to start with 15 minutes a day, then increase. I was okay the first day but the second day I wound up with sore balls of my feet, sore knees and slight back ache.”
Still praise for MBTs, even from my student, is effusive. “Walking or jogging in MBT footwear engages weakened muscles and burns more calories, thus helping to efficiently tone and strengthen. Even while standing the muscles continue working to gain a center of balance. It’s the world’s smallest gym,” says one reviewer.
By Rosalind McLymont