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Toning Clothes: Not a Perfect Fit

In April, New York University medical students won $75,000 in an entrepreneurship competition at New York University's Stern School of Business. The startup judges deemed worthy of the investment: a clothing company called Skinesiology, which “offers functional fitness apparel that resists movement to help people tone muscle and burn extra calories during everyday activities.”

The 75G check was made out on 4/25/14, making it clear that this is neither an April Fool’s joke, nor 2010. Which brings us to a segment Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler first popularized on Saturday Night Live: Really!?

Really!? In 2010, Reebok’s EasyTone shoes were killing it. According to DailyFinance, the company generated an estimated $1 billion in revenue from global sales of sneakers the company claimed would work women’s glutes 28 percent more, and their hamstrings and calves 11 percent more than wearing regular shoes.

Other sports brands put out their own “toning” kicks as well. Fila had Sculpt and Tone sneakers. Skechers made Shape Ups. The world was crazy for gear that made doin’ your thang i.e. walking to the store, standing in a meeting, etc. a calorie-incinerating workout.

“Body toning apparel is a natural progression of the recent successes in the toning footwear market,” said Jon Epstein, President of Fila USA in a press release from October 2010. That’s when Fila announced the creation of its Body Toning System, or BTS clothes. The company was careful not to make any quantifiable claims, stating simply that “BTS apparel is designed to increase muscle exercise which improves the efficiency as well as recovery of an existing workout.”

Reebok launched a line of EasyTone clothes around the same time. Then researchers started looking into the toning clothes’ effectiveness.

The American Council on Exercise funded a study looking into Fila’s fluffy promise that a woman could “achieve amazing results in half the time” with Fila’s new $50 Toning Resistance Tight Capri. Researchers threw 16 women between the ages of 18 and 24 on a treadmill and had them walk for five minutes at different speeds while wearing the pants, and again with regular pants. The result? Here’s what ACE Fitness reported:

Although the research showed a slight increase in calorie burn while wearing Fila’s toning capris, in a real-world scenario that boost would be negligible… 

In response to the claims of a 50-percent increase in muscle workouts, the researchers reported that the Fila capris didn’t deliver there either… 

“In order to provide enough resistance to be beneficial, the pants would have to be so restrictive that you wouldn’t be able to easily move. To achieve a 50-percent increase in muscle activation, you’d have to be wearing something akin to a straight jacket.” 

That last quote is from researcher John Porcari. On the up-side, Porcari’s fellow researcher Alexa Kleingartner told ACE, “I wouldn’t recommend buying them to make a difference in the effectiveness of your workout, but the extra compression and tightness may give you a butt lift and a better shape.” If looking good makes you feel like working out, that’s a plus. The pants, in other words, were like Spanx you could show off; they’d make you look skinnier, but they wouldn’t actually make you skinnier.

(Another study found that toning pants increased calories burned while walking up a 5 to 10-percent grade because the clothing resisted hip flexion. But that study was partially funded by a toning clothes company, making it difficult to take seriously.)

Meanwhile, ladies started stuffing their jiggly bits in to resistance pants hoping the clothes would be the miracle companies promised.

Then came the bombshell lawsuit. The Federal Trade Commission fined Reebok $25 million for making false claims about its toning shoes and apparel. The settlement barred Reebok from “making any health or fitness-related efficacy claims for toning shoes and other toning apparel unless the claims are true and backed by scientific evidence.”

Reebok discontinued their EasyTone clothes. Fila doesn’t appear to sell their toning line of clothes anymore either. The closest thing they currently stock is a $35 Chiseled Capri that says it’ll give a “body sculpting boost.”

So really!? NYU medical school students? In Skinesiology’s promo video, the students claim they’ve invented “clothes that work you out!” by naturally resisting the body’s mechanics, “kind of like moving in water which burns up to 50% more calories.” Fifty percent more than what? Sitting on your bum all day?

The video then goes on to state that the “average woman walks 1.5 hours per day, burning 280 calories.” Maybe in New York City? If that were true, nobody would need toning clothes—we’d be infinitely healthier already. According to the CDC, only 21 to 34 percent of US adults walk for 30 minutes five times a week.

But for argument’s sake, let’s say that yes, women walk 1.5 hours per day. That’s how long you’d have to walk, according to Skinesiology, to reap an extra 100-calorie benefit from wearing their tights. So if you’re already walking around a lot, maybe these pants can provide a small benefit. But if they’re as uncomfortable as researcher John Porcari thought they’d have to be to give you a workout, who’d keep them on all day to find out?

Live Science explains that Skinesiology’s claims come from the students’ own lab testing. It’ll be interesting to see what objective researchers find. Have these students stumbled upon a radical new resistance band design that neither Reebok nor Fila’s R&D teams could create?

I hate to lay into entrepreneurial youngsters, but it does seem like you’re repeating the errors of those who have gone before. Please prove me wrong. 

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Hoka One One Conquest

Hoka’s trademark giant foam polarized our test group. Some loved it, especially the way the rockered sole felt on long downhills. Others hated it.

But all noted how light, responsive, and stable the new rubbery injection-molded midsole material is, considering its elevator-shoe proportions. “There’s more bounce than squish in these Frankenstein midsoles,” one said, although the foam is firmer than you might expect. The upper drew similarly mixed opinions: some found it comfy and secure, while others found it underpadded and boxy.

Try it—you might love it, especially if you’re a hill climber or a long hauler. 12.3 oz; 4 mm drop 

$170, hokaoneone.com

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Mo Farah's Favorite Shoe

Who doesn't love Mo Farah? The current Olympic and world champion in both the 5,000 and 10,000 ran a 2:08:21 in the 2014 London Marathon, coined the Mobot, and—thanks to his huge smile and wide eyes—inspired one of the most hilarious running tumblrs ever.

And now you can run in his shoes. 

Well, kind of. This weekend, Nike released the Air Zoom Pegasus 31, designed specifically with Farah's input. "They listen to [elite runners] and work with you," Farah told reporters at a Nike Zoom media event. "I pretty much wear a neutral shoe, and the Pegasus gives me what I need."

So what exactly does a world champion require? Keeping in mind that Farah is about five-foot five and 125 pounds, not a lot (although he does wear orthotics). He can get away with much less stability and cushion than many runners.* 

Which is why the Pegasus works well for Farah. The 31st iteration of the responsive, lightweight shoe is designed to be a neutral runner's go-to trainer for high-mileage running.

Mo Farah leads a warm up on Hayward Field.

"The Pegasus...just keeps getting better," Farah says. The improved upper is simple: snug mesh with subtle supportive layers that are built in (instead of stitched on) to reduce weight. The toe box can accommodate wide feet, or just cinch the laces for a more secure fit across narrow feet. 

Where this shoe gets just the slightest bit complicated is the sole: Basically, a pocket of pressurized tensile fibers (Nike's "Zoom Air" unit) in the heel collapses when you land; as you toe off, the fibers snap back and push your foot off the ground. The result is super responsive cushioning, which is particularly awesome if you're a heel striker.

"I loved that snappiness," Farah says, "combined with the soft cushioning and protection that I need for my 100-plus miles a week." 

Runners also feel that fast snap off the ground thanks to a 10-millimeter drop sole (lower than previous models) that incorporates a slight curve under the toes to propel through foot strike and toe off. A crash rail down lateral side further aids energy transfer through the toe. 

So what's not to love about this shoe? If you're a forefoot striker, don't even bother. The Peg doesn't do a whole lot to protect the ball of your foot. Same goes for overpronators. No major arch support here. And if you're looking for a shoe for both roads and trails, keep on looking. The mesh upper is basically a sieve for dust and dirt. A five-mile run on Pre's Trail was enough to make fresh-out-of-the-box shoes and socks absolutely filthy—even on a sunny and dry Eugene day.

But, if you're a neutral runner, possibly with a bit of a heel strike, this is your shoe. Even if you're not doing 100 miles a week.

Pegasus 31

Outsole of the Pegasus 31.

* If you're a fore-foot striker, try the Nike Air Zoom Elite tempo trainer, which has the air bag in the toe. Overpronators might try the Air Zoom Structure, which incorporates a medial post in addition to Zoom Air in the forefoot and more stability in the heel. Those seeking an even lighter shoe than the Pegasus might like the very minimal Air Zoom Streak racing flat, which is built on a midsole platform with Zoom Air in the heel. (Nike says the Streak has won more marathons than any other she in Nike history.) 

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The $1 Million Gear Shed

These days you can share almost everything, from couches to cars. But outdoor gear? The idea hadn’t really been explored until three entrepreneurs launched GearCommons last August.

Mike Brown and fellow Tufts graduate James Rogers wanted to bring gear to the people. Along with friend Joel Weber, they created GearCommons—a sharing network that helps gear owners find people who want to rent their tents, kayaks, and other equipment that otherwise might spend lots of time in storage.

The basic premise is simple. The GearCommons web portal lets users search for rentable gear by type and location. If you see a product you need, you can review its specs and history, as well as the owner’s. Users first connect and make payments online, but gear transactions and returns have to take place between neighbors, in person. That way, the company claims, users get to meet people with similar interests, building a real-life social network of outdoor enthusiasts. 

Brown realized the potential of a “sharing economy” when he started blogging for Shareable* at the beginning of 2013. A biomedical engineer by trade, Brown’s a zealous outdoorsman with startup aspirations. After using car-sharing company Zipcar’s services in college, he realized that shared technology could curb inefficient spending and material use. It could also make outdoor recreation possible for people who either couldn’t afford, or didn’t have room to store, their own gear.   

“We’re trying to build a community of people who will share gear and reduce their impact on the environment,” Brown says. “We think it’s kind of a waste to be buying equipment you know you’re only going to use once—for, say, a music festival or a one-week hiking trip.”

Musing about a world of shared gear is one thing. Actually creating a social network that connects people and gear nationwide is a whole other animal, requiring immense amounts of research and skill. But outdoor gear is a $120 billion industry, and the trio was determined to tap into it.

The company does have some major hurdles to overcome—chief among them is expanding its user base. A cursory look at the GearCommons website and social accounts shows that the enterprise is still in its early stages.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gearcommons-site-tent_fe.jpg","size":"large"}%}

GearCommons has about $50,000 worth of gear in Boston, but activity is essentially confined so far to that locale—where Brown and his colleagues are based. Even then, site searches for essential gear show that only a few owners have gotten on board. A handful live in western states like Colorado and California, but no one offers gear yet in New Mexico (to our dismay). GearCommons has declined to say how many people have signed up for its services.

Still, some users say the slow extension westward isn’t indicative of the company’s value. “I think the startup has a really great idea. I know that when they are big enough, they could go nationwide—maybe even worldwide,” says member Neil Suttora, a unicyclist and Northeastern University student. Suttora put a tent, unicycle, and sleeping pad on the site after a mutual friend introduced him to Brown a year ago. But he hasn’t found renters for any of his listings yet. 

Some transactions have gone down, Brown says, although the company won’t say just how many. The other obvious obstacle has to do with liability. No one wants to rent out their personal gear if it’s going to come back damaged—or not come back at all. To address these concerns, Brown and his colleagues allow owners to apply security deposits to their gear up front. Renters pay the security deposit at the start and get their money back when they return equipment (in good condition) to its owners. 

Though other businesses in the sharing economy have run into a mess of regulatory hurdles and lawsuits, Brown says that “there’s really not much in the way legally of an idea like this spreading.” Not yet, anyway. 

{%{"quote":"“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet. By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet, but I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”"}%}

Despite a slow start, some business professionals see potential in GearCommons—or, at least, in the idea behind it. 

Perry Klebahn, a consulting professor in Stanford’s engineering school who helps young entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground, predicts GearCommons can carve out its own niche. “Any sort of manufacturer who’s not taking note of what GearCommons is doing and figuring out how they can be involved with the company, or figuring out how they can be involved with reuse of their own products, is nuts,” he says.

But Klebahn isn’t sure creating a new social platform was the way to go. “I might have started on somebody else’s platform, like eBay, and created a store within eBay to prototype the idea,” he explains. “I’m not convinced why the consumer wants another thing in their life.” Instead of immediately opening GearCommons up to all interested parties, says Klebahn, the team should have developed a stronger base of users in Boston before presenting their product nationally. 

Growing pains aside, other big names are seeing great potential in GearCommons as well. The team, which came in second in this year’s Tufts $100,000 Business Plan Competition, has already been in talks with companies like Patagonia about affiliate programs. GearCommons expects to mine user data to benefit such outfitters and gear developers. 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gearcommons-team_fe.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Two founding members of GearCommons, and an athletic banana."}%}

“If you rate a tent highly, we can then suggest that you go buy it. And so that is kind of like a sharing economy–retail hybrid,” Brown says, adding that there might be discounts on items found through GearCommons. “You know, we’re not trying to keep people from buying outdoor gear. We just want them to make more efficient use of it.” 

Over the next few months, Brown thinks that continuing in earnest with social media campaigns and hosting campus and community events is the way to go. However, the team is considering starting a GearCommons community-rep program that would build brand recognition and get word out in person in key locations—in the ethos of the peer-to-peer model. 

This short-term plan doesn’t reflect the team’s long-term vision, however: understanding your potential isn’t the same thing as realizing it. One hurdle will be staying levelheaded. Though many startups explode over a period of months, GearCommons hasn’t so far done that. The company is barely off the ground, and Brown is already thinking big. 

“Over the next several years, we hope to see GearCommons get people outside in every context,” Brown says, mentioning GearCommons-sponsored travel packages, sport lessons, and the like. “We just happen to be starting with access to gear.” 

“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet,” he explains. “By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet—but, once the word gets out, I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”

*Outside previously reported that Brown wrote for Social Solutions Collective, not Shareable, though the link has always been to Brown's Shareable pieces. 

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