They walk alone, in pairs or a group. They may walk fast or slow, but, as if hearing a different drummer, most set their own pace. Walkers are part of a growing army of people who find the climate-controlled, safe environment of Southern California's shopping malls the ideal place for exercise.
Ranging in age from young mothers pushing strollers, to retirees who want to stay active, mall walkers engage in the "trendiest," yet most ancient form of exercise. Many experts believe walking is the most beneficial of all exercises in improving one's general health, reducing stress and burning up calories.
"I'd tried everything," said Ella Schulman, a 57-year-old instructor for Weight Watchers in the San Fernando Valley. Schulman, a 20-year veteran of the slim-and-trim wars, recalled that when she began as an instructor, aerobics was the "in" exercise.
"I enjoyed it, but it was painful," she said. "And when I tried running in the park, I twisted my ankle several times."
Schulman gave up on exercise but found it impossible to maintain her weight goal. Fast-paced walking provided the perfect answer.
"It's social, requires no special equipment or training and has great cardiovascular benefits. I love it," she said.
Unlike Schulman, who walks in malls only in bad weather, Kay Bell wouldn't walk anywhere else. She used to walk in her own quiet Northridge neighborhood but gave it up when she was bitten by a dog.
"I was delighted to hear about a mall-walking program close by," she said. "Not only do I feel safer, but walking on carpeting prevents my getting painful shin splints."
Most shopping centers welcome walkers because it brings people in. Many run structured programs, which are usually sponsored by a local medical facility.
The Northridge Fashion Center's program, in conjunction with the Northridge Hospital Medical Center, offers free health programs in the center court at 10 a.m. on the second Monday of each month. Program topics include nutritional counseling, foot and eye screening and advice about arthritis.
A similar program, Pep in Your Step, is conducted by the Torrance Memorial Hospital Medical Center at Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance. Carole Suddaby, program coordinator, says: "Everyone is welcome to observe, but participants must have a doctor's approval." A physical therapist individualizes regimens of stretching, walking or non-impact aerobics.
Enrolling in these program holds other benefits. Some groups offer colorful T-shirts, several mail a monthly newsletter, and a few have regular meetings at a mall restaurant, sometimes with a merchant providing a fashion show. One group holds picnics and other social events to promote camaraderie. Northridge Fashion Center's merchants donate prizes to encourage participants. Marvin Meller, 74, whose doctor recommended walking as therapy after bypass surgery, says: "I won a basket of cheese and a $10 merchandise certificate. It makes life a little more interesting."
Walking has definitely come into its own, and business is recognizing this fact. Jeff Hunt, a salesman at an Eddie Bauer store, says: "More people, especially women, are definitely buying shoes specifically for walking." He sells a line of Rockport shoes, whose manufacturer also has published a useful paperback, "Rockport Fitness Walking" by Robert Sweetgall (72 Howe St., Marlboro, Mass. 01752: $8.95). Additionally, there's a new magazine, Walking, available at an introductory rate for $9.95. (Write to P.O. Box 56541, Boulder, Colo. 80321-6541.)
How effectively does walking consume calories? Some experts say a "stroll" of 3 miles per hour on level ground uses up 240 calories per hour. Brisk walking at 4 miles per hour consumes 360 calories, while serious full-stride walking burns up about 500 calories each hour. Thus, according to some calculations, brisk walking and jogging are about equal in calorie consumption.
To see how a structured walking program works, a visitor recently went to Montclair Plaza in Montclair:
It is Monday morning. More than 150 walkers arrive by 9 a.m. Volunteers Gladys and Bill Erisman lead the group in 15 minutes of simple stretches and bends. Then the group moves to the second level of the mall to begin half-mile laps. Marcia Murphy, program director, records each walker's progress.
They're walking fast. Tall, imposing Rufus Fairley takes a minute to explain: "I also swim laps, but added walking about three years ago, because it brought my blood pressure down."
Montclair Walkers must be enrolled in this community's Human Services Department, but it's not all business and no fun.
"This is a very caring group," Gladys Erisman said. "We send birthday and get-well cards and generally watch out for each other." Her husband, Bill, added: "There's even been a romance or two blossom as a result of this program."
Encouraged to Follow Route
The recently instituted Trailblazers group at Canoga Park's Fallbrook Mall, in conjunction with Humana Senior Assn. at a nearby medical center, requires each participant to sign a registration form and consult with his or her physician. Then they're encouraged to follow the three-quarter-mile route on their own.
Posted along this route are nine stations with diagrams, illustrating various bending, stretching and relaxing exercises to maximize the benefits of walking. Tillie Golusin, 66, attends an early-morning informal gathering of the Trailblazers. She says she walks to lower her cholesterol level, while Peter Blackmore, 61, who underwent a quadruple bypass three years ago, usually walks a minimum of 45 minutes daily in a program supervised by his cardiologist.
Blackmore says he's "speedy" and "can do three miles in about half an hour." His wife, Vivian, 58, who has multiple sclerosis, admits: "Everybody passes me up, but by coming here four days a week, I'm strengthening my legs."
At 55, Audrey Ause, a registered nurse, found that by combining the Rotation Diet and walking, she lost 20 pounds. "I don't worry about time," she said. "I come five days a week and find the friends I've made here a very big factor."
Understandably, mall merchants are happy with this new kind of pedestrian traffic. A growing number of the stores show their appreciation by offering gift merchandise or discounts when a participating walker meets his or her "goals."
"We're planning to start a program soon," said Donna Marcus, marketing manager for the Woodland Hills Promenade. "It's a great marketing tool."
As one walker observed, "I had never been in a Target store before, but it's so convenient I've come back to shop."
The following is a sampling of Southland malls that have programs. All malls have directories; find the information booth or office and request a brochure. LOS ANGELES COUNTY
Courtyard Mall, 550 Deep Valley Drive, Rolling Hills Estates, (213) 541-0688.
Del Amo Fashion Center, Hawthorne Boulevard and Carson Street, Torrance, (213) 542-8525. Co-sponsored by Torrance Memorial Medical Center.
Glendale Galleria, Broadway and Central Avenue, Glendale, (818) 240-9481. Co-sponsored by Glendale Adventist Medical Center.
Northridge Fashion Center, Nordhoff Street and Tampa Avenue, Northridge, (818) 885-9700. Co-sponsored by the Northridge Hospital Medical Center.
Panorama Mall, Van Nuys Boulevard and Roscoe Boulevard, Panorama City, (818) 894-9258.
West Covina Fashion Plaza, Interstate 10 and Sunset Avenue, West Covina, (818) 960-1881. Co-sponsored by Queen of the Valley Hospital.
Whitwood Mall, Whittier Boulevard and Santa Gertrudes Avenue, Whittier, (213) 947-2871.
Brea Mall, State College Boulevard and Imperial Highway, Brea, (714) 990-2732. Co-sponsored by Brea Community Hospital.
Buena Park Mall, La Palma and Stanton avenues, Buena Park, (714) 828-7722. Co-sponsored by La Palma Community Hospital.
The City Shopping Center, City Drive and Chapman Avenue, Orange, (714) 634-8500. Co-sponsored by University of California at Irvine Medical Center.
Mall of Orange, Tustin and Meats avenues, Orange, (714) 998-0440.
Westminster Mall, Golden West Street and Bolsa Avenue, Westminster, (714) 898-2550. Co-sponsored by Humana Hospital.
Palm Desert Town Center, California 111 at Monterey Avenue, Palm Desert, (619) 346-2121. Co-sponsored by the Eisenhower Medical Center.
Tyler Mall, 3570 Tyler Mall (at Tyler Street), Riverside, (714) 687-3235. Co-sponsored by Corona Community Hospital.
SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY
Central City Mall, 2nd Street between E and G streets, San Bernardino, (714) 884-0106. Co-sponsored by Loma Linda Hospital.
Montclair Plaza, Interstate 10 and Monte Vista Avenue, Montclair, (714) 626-2441. Co-sponsored by the Human Services Department, City of Montclair.
SAN DIEGO COUNTY
Fashion Valley Shopping Center, 352 Fashion Valley at Friars Road, San Diego, (619) 297-3381. Co-sponsored by Mercy Heart Institute.
Grossmont Center, 5500 Grossmont Center Drive (at Interstate 8), La Mesa, (619) 466-5306. Not an enclosed mall. Co-sponsored by the Grossmont Hospital.
Plaza Bonita, 3030 Plaza Bonita Road, National City, (714) 267-2850. Co-sponsored by Paradise Valley Hospital.
Plaza Camino Real, 2525 El Camino Real (at Marron Road), Carlsbad, (619) 729-7927. Co-sponsored by Mission Park Clinic.
The Esplanade Mall, 195 Esplanade Drive (at Vineyard Avenue), Oxnard, (805) 485-1146. Co-sponsored by St. John's Regional Medical Center.