People have a million excuses not to get off the couch and walk for exercise. There’s bad traffic, angry dogs and uneven surfaces; the air quality’s poor, it’s too hot, it’s raining, it’s too cold and it’s slippery. Somebody left the refrigerator door open; it’s a Wednesday; they’re predicting the forecast calls for meteor showers.
There are plenty of reasons not to walk, but not many good ones. More than ever, fitness-minded folk — especially seniors — get their regular exercise at the mall. Mall walking truly began with the opening of American’s first mall in 1956. Then, however, it was simply called “shopping.” Now walkers are exercising for exercise’s sake, often taking to malls even before the stores open and crowds pour in.
It’s an exercise trend with its own shoe — presenting “Mall Walker Shoes,” by Hush Puppies (with extra traction for those slippery mall floors.)
Locally, dozens of walkers take to the sunlit concourse of University Mall on South Estes Drive in Chapel Hill as early as 7 a.m. every day for a safe, even, climate-controlled stroll.
“I prefer to walk outside, but I come here if it’s rainy or windy or kind of cool,” said Susan Talbott, who was walking in University Mall last Thursday afternoon. “It’s pleasing to the eye, too. There’s a lot of art around, and it’s not all just (stores).”
For some, exercising in the mall is safer than walking outdoor.
“I’m 80, and this way, I don’t turn my hip and I don’t have to watch for cars: it’s perfect,” Rachel Coley said early Friday morning. “If you do it every day, it pays.”
When indoors, walkers have it made in the shade.
“Beyond that, you’re never charged by a pit bull, there’s no traffic, no pollution, and another big thing for me, having spoken with my dermatologist, is that I’m out of the sun,” said Joe Moran, who has been walking in malls for seven years.
Doors open to all walkers at University Mall hours prior to the mall’s stores, security guards are already there, and exercise typically a simple self-guided tour of the facility at a brisk-but-social pace.
While the Orange County Department on Aging and UNC Healthcare also collaborate to offer a special monthly Senior Striders program the third Tuesday of the month.
“It’s so popular, you have to register, and we have usually about 45 or 50 for that event and breakfast which is sponsored by UNC. We coordinate the speakers. The main thing is that we promote exercise and health education — that’s the main focus of it,” the Orange County Department on Aging’s Latonya Brown said.
Either on their own or through Senior Striders, mall walkers enjoy such benefits as better aerobic fitness, increased energy, reduced risk of falls and fractures, and decreased risk of disease, according to the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont website uncwellness.com.
But folks are finding that mall walking is as much about fellowship as it is about fitness, and that can also decrease the level of stress and depression in seniors.
“I’ve been walking every day for 48 years,” Coley said. “I had a depression, the doctor said to start walking, and I’ve never stopped. I will never stop. I go to the doctor, and they say, ‘Wow.’ My doctors say it’s wonderful. It makes the biggest difference.”
“The nicest thing is that you kind of get to know one another here,” Moran said.
“Some of the (walkers) go to Curves first, but I just come here,” mall walker Carolyn Felton said. “My husband (Jim) usually comes too. There are about six of us who usually go for coffee afterwards.”
“I’ve been walking probably ever since it’s been here — in the 1970s — and I’ve been walking steadily for the past 20 years,” Mary C. Monk said. “It’s very helpful…and there’s not a lot of jumping up and down and jarring.”
“It’s just good for your health, like if you’ve got sugar (problems), or high blood pressure,” said Shirley Russell, who was walking with Monk on Friday morning. “Most doctors will tell you to get out and walk: walking is the best activity anyway.”
One of the reasons that mall walking works is that the walkers share a symbiotic relationship with the malls. Many malls actively encourage mall walking, because the walkers are typically present during hours when the mall would otherwise be closed or unoccupied. The belief is also that walkers may well stay and shop.
UNC Wellness Center health education director Jamy McGee said her facility coordinates a structured walking program at Southpoint Mall.
“I or…our health educator will go out there and warm up the crowd,” she said. “We also usually have a monthly speaker and a breakfast..”
“People can walk seven days a week whether the mall’s open or closed,” McGee added. “They open Southpoint Mall a few hours before the shops open. There are little mile markers, and there’s even a brochure with a little walking map, so people can know their mileage.”
For more information on the Senior Striders program at University Mall, contact the Orange County Department on Aging at 919-245-2000 or Latonya Brown at 919-245-2470. For information on the Southpoint Mall program, contact the UNC Wellness Center at 919-966-5500.