Bulky, stiff sneakers are out—and comfort is in! The latest research shows that athletic shoes that overrestrict foot motion may contribute to injuries, and so can flimsy flats. We asked 33 walkers to test more than 100 pairs for the right balance of support and flexibility for any occasion to come up with this top 10 list. To keep your feet feeling good mile after mile, try a bunch on and go with the shoe that feels best on your feet.
Best for: Hiking
Ahnu Rockridge II
$100, also available in green, brown; ahnufootwear.com.These lightweight hikers perform as well as bulkier high-top versions.
"They're much more flexible," reports tester Jess Lee, 30, of Brooklyn, NY. The rugged sole grips as you go up and down hills but is bendable enough that you can keep up a smooth, rolling stride on level terrain. And the reinforced toe area protects your feet from bumps against rocks and roots.
$90, also available in blue; shopnewbalance.com. This shoe has a superflexible toe that makes it easy to push off and quicken your pace. But no matter how fast you go, the ankle padding will keep your heel snugly in place. "My foot didn't budge, even in thin socks," reports tester Jessica Branch, 45, of New York City. A mesh upper is lined to buffer cold and wind.
Best for: Bunions
Asics Gel-Tech Walker Neo 2
An ultraroomy toe box and an expandable "bunion window" on the inside take the squeeze off swollen joints and toes.
"I could walk longer than usual, because the shoe has a lot of give in the right place," says bunion sufferer Connie Esmond, 63, of Broken Arrow, OK.
Air pockets in the rubber bottom of the shoe reduce impact for more comfort and less chance of injury. Even slim walkers enjoy the extra cushioning, especially for long walks: "No matter how far I went, my feet never got sore," reports tester Jennifer DeLuca, 41, of Brooklyn, NY. The mesh upper lets air circulate so feet stay dry and cool.
Best for: Running Intervals
Brooks Trance 10
Walkers who want to add jogging bursts should opt for a running shoe. This one is designed for high impact but is still flexible enough for the rolling motion of walking.
"These shoes were comfortable at any speed; I felt like they really sprang me forward," reports tester Molly Raisch, 23, of Allentown, PA.
Barefoot walking is a growing trend, but these minimally padded shoes protect your feet from the perils of the pavement while giving you much of the flexibility and foot-strengthening benefits of going au naturel. "I liked the narrow sole—it didn't feel at all clunky, like some sports shoes do," says tester Carina Ready, 35, of Casper, WY. To avoid overworking your foot muscles, start with short 15-to 20-minute walks, and increase your workouts by about 5 minutes a week. You'll walk more lightly (minimizing the shock caused by your steps), and the strength you may gain can help prevent conditions such as fallen arches.
Best for: Running Errands
$60, available in nine colors; saucony.com.
These stylish sneakers are lightweight and have just enough arch support to keep your feet comfy when you're on the go.
"I wore these for shopping and doing errands—they were just right for everyday," reports tester Eileen Kohn, 48, of Aurora, OH. The full coverage makes them a good choice for spring and fall.
Best for: Dressing Up
Hush Puppies Veracity
$80, also available in taupe, black; hushpuppies.com.
These shoes have a hip look, thanks to the asymmetrical strap, yet they provide the comfort of sneakers with cushioned insoles and arch support. "I could walk for longer than I can in flats," says Jodi Standish, 32, of Bellevue, NE. "My heels and arches felt great." The leather upper molds to your foot after a few wears for a snug—but not tight—fit.
Best for: Walking Away Foot Aches
Merrell Mezame Ballet Flat
$95, also available in black, gray; merrell.com.
Mini rubber nubs on the insoles massage your feet as you walk. If you tire of the effect, flip the insoles over—they're reversible and have a smooth bottom side. "This shoe felt as light as a flip-flop and was dressy enough to wear out to dinner," says tester Rachelle Powell, 45, of Mesquite, TX. The tapered heels stay put—no slipping!
Best for: All-Day Wear
$130, also available in pink, tan; scarpa.com.
These casual sneakers are sturdier than they look, making them a comfy choice for activities such as sightseeing, when you're on your feet for hours. The sole—made of slip-resistant Vibram rubber—is firm in the back and flexible in the front. "I usually take off my shoes as soon as I get home, but I wore these late into the night without even noticing," says Kristina Donatelli, 39, of Bethlehem, PA.