In the early morning, before stores open and shoppers begin hunting for bargains, a group of people is using your local mall for other purposes. They are mall walkers, their tennis shoes tied tightly as they catch up over coffee.
With ample parking, lots of bathrooms, plenty of flat surfaces and great lighting, local malls may be the perfect place to get some exercise and make friends. Thanks to new funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Washington School of Nursing is about to make mall walking even easier.
The project aims to evaluate whether mall walking programs are effective, and whether they can lead to larger-scale increases in walking.
“I’ve been a mall walker for over three years, and to me it is a godsend,” said George Wong, an avid mall walker and supporter of mall-walking programs. “I love the comradeship that comes from belonging to a group, and it is a great way to make friends.”
Basia Belza, a UW nursing professor, and partners in five states are leading the charge to develop an evidence-informed mall-walking resource guide, filled with tips, ideas and information to develop more mall walking programs throughout the country.
“This guide will be a culturally sensitive resource that will provide information to mall-walkers in several different areas, including Alaska, West Virginia, Illinois and Missouri,” said Belza. “We hope to develop a resource that will be used in a variety of cities to make mall-walking programs easier to find and use.”
Belza notes that malls make an excellent place for people to get their daily exercise, especially middle-age and older adults. Malls are equipped with bathrooms and access to water, lighting and benches. They also have on-site security, and many are covered, making it comfortable to walk in inclement weather. Many malls are also on public transit lines, meaning people can get to the mall without driving, though there is plenty of parking for those who drive.
“Many times, people will stay in their houses because they don’t have anyone to exercise with,” said Belza. “Mall-walking takes away some of those excuses and concerns—there is a built in safety system and plenty of resources available. Walking with a group is a great way to socialize while getting your exercise in.”
A $125,000 CDC grant will allow researchers to assess the status of current mall-walking programs while improving available resources. The project will look at how diverse socio-economic, regional and racial groups might access mall resources. An advisory will help disseminate information and study findings to interested groups.
“Malls exist in all kinds of neighborhoods, across socio-economic status, and are a wonderful place for people to gather,” said Belza.
Belza notes that the health benefits of walking in general are numerous and can make a difference in the quality of life of everyone, not just older adults. For older adults, however, mall-walking can also provide social stimulation.
“Being physically active helps older adults remain independent,” said Belza. “It increases overall muscle strength and health and improves balance which can reduce ones’ risk for falls. Walking is a wonderful activity and exercise for anyone.”
Wong, who walks with a sound-step program called “So Walk-on,” has been a mall walker for three years and says it has helped him to lose weight and lowered his blood pressure and cholesterol. “Mall walking is one of the better parts of my life,” he said.
David Brown, a senior behavioral scientist with the CDC, said there is a lack of low-cost, effective walking programs that have the potential to be packaged and disseminated on a large scale among communities. Shopping malls are a setting that could fill this void.
“Almost every community in the U.S. has the potential to have one or more mall walking programs and that can set a social norm for the nation to be more active,” Brown said.
”Dr. Belza and her team will determine if mall walking programs can be used in non-mall settings, and this is important since some rural communities or urban neighborhoods lack a shopping mall,” he said.
Project funding is through the UW Health Promotion Research Center, a CDC Prevention Research Center, and is in the UW School of Public Health, where Belza is an adjunct professor.