Shopping for athleisure shoes

My main exercise is walking, and these days the walk is often back and forth between home and the Loop or the Near North Side. Even though I count those walks as aerobic exercise, the activities they take me to call for something nicer than shorts, T-shirt, and lace-up athletic shoes.

The sandals and thin-soled flats I’ve been wearing have proven uncomfortable for extended walking.

It was a “duh” realization: Shoes for walking to a miles-away destination should feel as good as shoes for the track or the gym. If I wouldn’t wear sandals on the treadmill, why wear them to walk long distances?

What I need are the thick, cushioned soles of athletic shoes and more fashionable uppers.

Turns out that, as usual, I’m behind the trends. The shoe industry has been marketing “athleisure” (a new word to me) shoes for just the need I’d come to realize. Athleisure clothing and shoes are meant to go from the gym into everyday life. An advertisement for a slip-on sneaker says, “Your workout doesn't begin and end at the gym. Give your feet the comfort they need.”

The slip-on sneakers or athletic loafers style would be perfect, I figured. What brand to buy? Should I stick with the sports shoe brands I’ve always bought for exercise (New Balance, Nike, Reebok, Asics, Adidas, Saucony) if they make slip-ons? What about the comfort shoes friends swear by — Dansko, Birkenstock, Merrell? Their price tags are pretty hefty. Before shelling out $100, I thought I’d see whether podiatrists endorse the assumption that the more you pay, the better the shoe.

Considering the prices on lists of best running shoes, best walking shoes, best cross-trainers, ad infinitum, it’s surprising to hear podiatric surgeon Suzanne M. Levine’s answer to the question of whether expensive shoes are better for your feet.

“There’s absolutely no correlation between price and good fit, or between price and sound shoe construction,” says the author of Your Feet Don’t Have to Hurt: A Woman’s Guide to Lifelong Foot Care. “There’s absolutely no medical evidence to support the claim that shoes with famous logos last longer or are better for your feet.”

Also surprising is the opinion of some researchers that athletic shoe companies have taken firm support too far, that overly supportive shoes have altered our natural step and posture and weakened our foot muscles.

Okay, there is indication for passing up the priciest shoes with features like extra stability and motion control. But I still want comfort. And I found it in $35 Champion shoes from Payless on sale for $19. It’s the first time I’ve bought athletic shoes from Payless.

I decided to give Champion a try because of several good reviews. Champion shoes have been a Consumer Reports best buy in walking shoes and scored well in a number of the magazine’s tests. The website chose the Champion C9 as one of its four best shoes for walking. The site lists a Champion shoe in its five best women’s and five best men’s shoes for standing all day. The site calls the Champion Gusto Runner as “an affordable option for anyone who spends a lot of time on their feet.”

The Champion Women’s Unwind Sport Slip-on that I bought has the same memory-foam sole as the new Champion running and walking styles. I tried the shoes out Sunday, walking two miles to church, another couple of miles giving a tour, and then back home, and they passed the comfort test.

I’m not claiming that cheap shoes are better than pricier ones. If people find their feet feel better in expensive shoes, by all means they should go for comfort. Champion shoes might not last as long as Merrell’s or Birkenstock’s. But since my feet don’t hurt and presumably aren’t being hurt, I’m happy to have saved money.

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