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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Mall walking, or ambling around a shopping center for exercise, has become a major fitness option in the United States, and not just for senior citizens.
"The highest percentage of mall walkers are retired," said Sara Donovan, who wrote the book "Mall Walking Madness: Everything You Need to Know to Lose Weight and Have Fun at the Same Time."
"And yet there's a big contingent of stroller moms and also, and this is something we didn't expect, parents who have home-schooled their kids and mall walk as part of the kids' physical education," she said.
Walking is among the oldest fitness options. Thousands of years ago the Greek physician Hippocrates declared walking man's best medicine. Today the AARP, a leading senior organization, lists managing weight, controlling blood pressure, decreasing risk of heart attack and stroke, among its many benefits.
Mall walking began when the first fully enclosed U.S. mall, the Stockdale, opened in Minnesota in 1956 and local doctors counseled patients recovering from heart attacks to exercise there, away from the snow and ice of Minnesota's harsh winters.
"It was very grassroots. People who wanted to get exercise gravitated to the Stockdale mall," Donovan explained. "Then the managers opened their doors earlier."
The 1980s saw a boom in the construction of malls and by 2001, some 2.5 million people were walking in 1,800 malls in the United States, according to Donovan's book. Mall walking has since spread to Europe and Asia.
The Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minnesota, has been operating its mall-walking program, called Mall Stars, since opening in 1992.
"It gets really cold here, but the mall is always 70 degrees," said Erica Dao, spokeswoman for the massive mall, described as "the largest, fully enclosed retail and family entertainment complex in the U.S."
The mall opens at 7 a.m., three hours before the stores, to accommodate walkers. The distance around one level of Mall of America is .57 of a mile.
Dao said over 200 people belong to Mall Stars. A $15 annual fee gets them monthly breakfasts, retail discounts, swipe cards to track their hours walked, and lectures on health and fitness.
Elayne Gilhousen and her husband have been Mall Stars for 17 years.
"The mall has furnished us with an area where we can hang our coats," she said. "We walk at 9 a.m., from 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how many people we stop and talk to."
"My husband has had a series of illnesses and, for us, mall walking is essential, not only for the exercise but for the social activity, being able to say hello to someone, and smiling at them," she said.
Donovan said malls provide a place walkers can feel safe.
"You don't have to worry about a dog slipping out. You always have a bathroom, and most malls have security. Even if you have a heart issue, they have defibrillators."
She recalls that when the Evergreen Mall, in suburban Chicago, tried to stop their mall walking program in 2001, the ensuing tsunami of bad press and threats of boycotts forced management to beat a hasty retreat.
"They had a revolt on their hands," she explained. "These are the people who make their exercise happen. By hook or by crook they're going to get their walk in."