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Marking Miles in the Malls : Walkers Find Centers an Agreeable Environment


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

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