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Is mall walking the summer’s coolest exercise?

Candice Denise Owens likes to get in 8,000 to 10,000 steps each day. But one day last fall, the 44-year-old Baltimore resident realized she didn’t want to head outdoors for her daily walk. “It was too cold — but I didn’t want to stop getting my steps in,” she tells Yahoo Life.

And so the digital creator, motivational speaker and self-care coach headed instead to a local mall. “I have literally been able to get my steps in today from just casually walking the mall,” she marveled in a TikTok about her experience with what’s known as “mall walking,” a workout generally associated with older adults. “I used to look at women when I was younger and I’m like, ‘Look at those little women mall walking.’ And now I get it; they’re trying to get their steps in.”

Months later, Owens has kept up her mall walking routine, especially on days when the weather is bad (like now, when extreme heat is kicking in) or she’s worried her asthma might flare up outside. She estimates that she mall walks about two or three times a month, tracking her steps (usually about 8,000 per visit) on her iPhone’s fitness app and arriving close to opening hours to avoid being slowed down by crowds or sluggish window-shoppers. The latter is a trick she’s learned from observing older mall walkers back when she worked at an in-mall Nordstrom years ago.

Here’s what experts say about mall walking — and how to make the most of your time strolling past Foot Locker.

Yes, but there are a couple of caveats, cardiologist Dr. Mustali Dohadwala tells Yahoo Life. Walking is associated with numerous benefits, some of which, such as vitamin D exposure, are specific to walking outdoors rather than inside. Therefore mall walkers (or someone getting their steps in on a treadmill at the gym) might miss out.

But any walking still “saves lives,” Dohadwala adds, because it keeps people active and away from the sort of sedentary lifestyle that’s linked to a higher risk of premature death. Even indoor walking is good for cardiovascular health, and it can be a “safer” exercise option for many people, especially as summer sets in and heat safety is a concern. As a doctor born and raised in Houston, Dohadwala knows all too well how heat and humidity can put someone — particularly a person who is taking prescription medication, has an underlying health condition, is relatively sedentary or is simply not acclimated to exercising in hot weather — at risk of heat exhaustion, or worse.

What’s a good benchmark for walking? Dohadwala points to guidelines recommending at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, which, he says, “would be sufficient for cardiovascular health.” As far as step count goes, “the data shows that anywhere between 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day would be sufficient,” he adds.

According to the official mall walking resource guide created by the University of Washington’s Health Promotion Research Center in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extreme heat is just one of the many exercise barriers malls can help people overcome.

“We know we have issues with people being physically inactive, and we know one of the things people like to do is walk,” University of Washington’s de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging director and professor Basia Belza, who led the research for the mall walking guide, tells Yahoo Life. “So how come we can’t create more venues for people to feel safe in walking? … We know it can build community. We can do it alone, we can do it with others. You can do it with a 5-year-old, you can do it with an 85-year-old.”

Mall walking, adds Belza, solves problems that make exercise inaccessible. These barriers include:

  • Weather: As the guide notes, “the majority of malls provide a temperature-controlled indoor environment” that offer refuge during hot, cold or inclement weather.

  • Fear of crime: Security and the presence of other people can provide a sense of safety. “Especially as a female, it’s kind of nice to be able to walk and not feel like I have to continuously keep looking over my [shoulder for signs of danger],” says Owens.

  • Fear of injury: A mall’s smooth, flat surfaces are more pedestrian-friendly, particularly for those who don’t feel confident about navigating rocky, hilly or uneven terrain (or are worried about being hit by a reckless driver).

  • Lack of access to a gym: Provided you aren’t going on a shopping spree after every stroll or paying for valet parking, there’s no cost attached to mall walking.

  • Lack of restrooms: Clean and safe public restrooms can be hard to find on outdoor treks. By contrast, malls have a number of restroom facilities should the need arise.

  • Lack of social support: According to Belza, many mall owners are “forward-thinking” enough to partner with area hospitals or host community programs that make it easy to find a walking buddy, join an existing club or even get your blood pressure checked. Checking local Meetup listings might also turn up like-minded groups.

  • Lack of skills: It’s easy to be intimidated by fitness trends, but walking is as straightforward as it gets. Just slip on some sneakers and pick up your pace.

Ready to get your heart rate up at the galleria? Here are some tips.

  • Find the right walking buddy. As Belza says, mall walking can be great for building community — but it may take a while to find someone who is on the same page in terms of walking pace and fitness goals. “I do prefer to go by myself,” says Owens, “just because some people are not as disciplined and they may want to stop and look at stores and shop.”

  • Park farther away. This allows Owens to sneak some extra steps in, she says.

  • Go during off-peak hours. Both Owens and Belza recommend showing up early to avoid crowds, and some malls open their doors before the shops inside actually open.

  • Bring the stroller. Mall walking can be particularly appealing to moms who want to get some exercise while their little ones nap in the Doona.

  • Multitask. If you’re not into chatting or soaking up the sounds of the mall, pop in your headphones. Owens swears by a motivational podcast or audiobook to keep her going during her solo jaunts.

Mall walking appears to be picking up new (and younger) fans on TikTok, but it’s worth acknowledging that not every community will have access to a mall or comparable shopping center. Many have closed, and the retail landscape is constantly changing. “When we were doing this work, it was when malls were just very robust,” says Belza. “Now, clearly, some things have changed, like COVID and online ordering.”

While her mall walking guide points to similarly minded spaces available nationwide — from walking programs at zoos to hockey rinks — Belza remains optimistic that the tide will change.

“I think malls are going to have a resurgence,” she says. “I think there’s still a need for them. There’s still places that people need to go … [where] they feel a sense of community.”

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