LA MESA — Two hours before the stores open at Grossmont Shopping Center, 75 mall walkers gather for a warm-up stretch in the courtyard. Then they're off and walking.
Julie Rose, 71, who had heart bypass operations two years ago, speeds around the perimeter of the center until she has put in six miles. Her husband, Merle, 69, is at her side. But instead of walking, he jogs. To relieve pressure on an old running injury, he circles the course jogging backward.
For the Moon family, a Saturday morning walk is a three-generation affair. Dick Moon, 62, and wife Patricia, 61, are joined by daughter Barbara, 31; son-in-law Phil, 34, and grandson Jonathan, 10.
There's also a wheelchair mall exerciser in the group, Louise Homer, 50, a childhood polio victim.
They are among the 1,000 members of the Mall Walkers, a walking fitness program created by Grossmont District Hospital and co-sponsored by the Grossmont Shopping Center for anyone interested in walking for exercise.
"I'm a runner myself," said founder Betsy Horton, who is coordinator of Grossmont Hospital's Wellness Center. "But walking is the perfect exercise for most people, and I really wanted to make a program available here."
However, her first attempts ended in failure.
"We tried to do it in the area surrounding the hospital but it was too hilly, and walkers always had to be on guard for cars," she said.
The plan became instantly successful once she contacted Grossmont Center Manager Betsy Murphy and asked to use it as a walking course.
"When I was associated with Northgate Mall in Seattle, we had an informal group of walkers who enjoyed using the enclosed mall as their course," Murphy said, "but it was nothing as big as this. I'm amazed at how popular this group has become. One of the main reasons, I think, is that walkers feel safe here. There's not a problem dodging cars, and there's plenty of security guards and other people around.
"It's also very positive from a public-relations aspect. We're developing a good group of loyal customers, and 35 of the stores offer discounts to Mall Walker members."
When 400 people showed up for the inaugural walk
a year ago, Horton knew her second attempt would be successful.
"My biggest inspiration for this is my father," Horton said. "After he retired, he started walking five miles a day and took off 25 pounds. He'll be visiting here soon with my mother, and I can't wait to have them join us on our walks."
Mall Walkers range in age from 3 to the mid-80s. But most are in their early and middle 60s.
One of the regulars is Pat Kellog, 60, who suffered two heart attacks a year ago and walks as part of her ongoing physical therapy, which also includes monitored treadmill and bike exercise at the hospital's rehabilitation center.
"After my heart attacks, my doctor told me that all I could do was eat, go to the bathroom and sleep," Kellog said. "But after a month of that, I felt I'd rather be dead."
She said she regained her vitality through the hospital rehabilitation program and by becoming an avid walker. She is the first woman in Mall Walkers to achieve 500 miles.
Another 500-miler in the group is Bill Sutherland, 64, owner of a bridal shop at Grossmont Center.
"I hated to walk when I first started," he admitted. "I only did it on doctor's orders after open-heart surgery, but now I really look forward to it. I do my walk in the morning before I open up, and I've found it's an ideal time to plan the day's activities, strategize my plans, think of what I need to order, things like that."
Two years ago, Mall Walker Dick Moon realized he and his wife needed to beef up their stamina after an exhausting two-month visit to Africa to fix medical equipment in mission hospitals.
"My wife and I are both healthy with no heart problems, but we saw the need for some type of exercise," he said.
The Moons walk six days a week at the mall and are joined occasionally on Saturdays by their children and grandchildren.
According to Mall Walker coordinator Judy Blanchard, anyone can join the free program by registering at the Mall Walker booth in the Broadway Court of Grossmont Center or by showing up in the courtyard area for the group's regular Saturday "stretch and run" walks at 8 and 9 a.m.
Each person receives a packet with a map of measured walking routes in the mall, cards to record distances, and instructions on how to stretch properly.
Blanchard, a health educator at Grossmont Hospital, gives each new member an initial assessment and helps map out a slowly advancing individual program of walking. She gives them another check two weeks later, then participants are on their own.
"It depends on what a person wants out of walking," Blanchard said. "I'll prescribe one program for a person who specifically wants to lose weight and another for someone who just wants to increase stamina."