It’s 8 a.m. and peppered throughout The Westchester shopping mall in White Plains, New York, are maintenance workers, store employees, and a handful of speed walkers with their arms pumping and hips swinging like they’ve got somewhere to be — but they don’t. They are mall walking, the suburban phenomenon of exercising in one of America’s large consumer venues.
The walkers, a mix of elderly couples and new moms, start trickling in at 7, some solo and some with a partner. After signing in and checking their coats, they make their way down the wide, carpeted walkways. Their outfits are a combination of running shoes, statement scarves, and chunky jewelry, with light jackets tied around their waists. Top-40 pop, the babble of fountains, and just-out-of-earshot chatter create an echo chamber of white noise, one any suburban kid would find comforting. The Westchester has hosted mall walking every Tuesday and Friday for more than a decade, with anywhere from 50 to 70 people attending. It’s one of many shopping centers across the country that opens its doors early for this activity.
Mall walking is exactly what it sounds like — a form of exercise where people walk in shopping malls. According to a resource guide created by the CDC, malls are the second most frequently used venues for walking, right behind neighborhoods. Why do people prefer them over parks and gyms? A few reasons: roomy corridors, a weather-proof environment, close parking, proximity to bathrooms, ample amounts of benches and fountains for resting, and, of course, it’s easy. Most of its participants are elderly, but some are new moms with strollers who find the wide walkways optimal for exercising.
One of the authors of the CDC guide and a member of the Healthy Aging Research Network, Dr. Dori Rosenberg, says the goal of the study was to create a resource for older adults who want to live more active lives, but don’t like the obvious options. Mall walking is lower-pressure than joining a fitness class, as anyone who has accidentally stepped into a high-intensity hip-hop lesson can attest to. And with other unorthodox options, like the zoo walking program in Seattle, participants must mind the elements, whereas a mall is open in almost any weather. Malls also have large spaces like food courts where groups can serve breakfast or host speakers, something that many mall walking groups like to do.
The Westchester’s mall walking program is put on by the Westchester Parks Department and hosts speakers who address different health and wellness concerns on the first Friday of each month. On January 12th, they hosted a financial specialist from GreenPath Financial Wellness, and they want their next speaker to be “about yoga.”
However, with malls closing at a rapid rate and online shopping (i.e., Amazon) becoming the norm, the question is, “Where will mall walkers go?” and even more broadly, “What is like a mall?”
In 2017, 18 retailers, including Payless, The Limited, and Toys R Us, filed for bankruptcy, and closed hundred of shops across the country. It is projected that in the next five years, a quarter of America’s 1,100 shopping malls will shut down. Sears, which had 3,800 locations 10 years ago, is down to 1,104 stores; last year Macy’s closed 68 stores and J.C. Penney closed 128. Malls depended on these anchor, big-box chains to attract shoppers and then funnel foot traffic inside to smaller retailers, but as department stores vanish, this traffic flow has de-congested. According to TIME, between 2010 and 2013, holiday shopping at malls dropped by 50 percent.
Much of this has to do with the fact that retail space grew faster than the need for goods. It’s estimated that between 1956 and 2005, about 1,500 malls were built. But, in the past eight years, in-store experiences have been losing out to the convenience of online shopping. With retailers seemingly evaporating, industrial real estate owners are looking to sell abandoned stores to entertainment and lifestyle venues that would make money and utilize the sprawling space that malls carved out. This could include gyms, bowling alleys, mini golf, or other non-retail spaces. As of now, however, malls are closing and nothing is replacing them.
Some mall walkers have already had to face the inconvenient reality of their “gym” closing. In Matteson, Illinois, walkers at the Lincoln Mall, called the Lincoln Mall Milers, were forced to move to their community center after the mall’s closing. Nancy Dornhecker, the community outreach coordinator of UChicago Medicine in Ingalls Memorial, says the group was devastated. “This is a family,” she says. “They are a very tight-knit group. I know when someone gets sick or when a loved one passes away.”
When Lincoln Mall closed in 2015, Dornhecker considered merging the Lincoln Mall Milers with one of the two other mall-walking programs she supervises, but the walkers didn’t want to trek to a farther location. So instead, Dornhecker arranged for them to start meeting at the Matteson Community Center, and they were renamed the Matteson Milers. Dornhecker organizes a continental breakfast with bagels and muffins (“the healthiest thing I can do on a budget” she says). Every month they take their blood pressure and every other month a health speaker talks to the group about how to live active lives. For every 100 miles walked, they get an award and a gift card. “It’s usually to something healthy, like Panera or Subway,” Dornhecker says.
Elois Little, 81, has been mall walking since 1998, and was disappointed when she found out the group had to move. “I met friends I never would have met if I didn’t walk at the mall,” she says. For her, and the rest of the Matteson Milers, walking is equal parts socializing and exercising. Little says the group would shop after exercising, and now that’s not as convenient of an option. The Matteson Milers still try to grab lunch or see a movie after walking at the community center, but it’s not the same.
Dornhecker says the walkers regularly tell her how they miss shopping at the mall. “They would know when the sale signs go up,” she says. “They would call me and say ‘this would look cute on you’ and put it on hold for me so I could come after work and see it.” When the mall shut down, all the walkers stayed together and moved to the community center as a group.
Along with the shopping, Little says that the actual route of the community center is not as enjoyable: There are more turns, and the walkways are not as wide. She also doesn’t like the idea of walking outside. “I don’t like when it’s really warm or really cold,” she says. “Walking inside, you are in close contact with each other and are able to enjoy each other. I don’t know if you can do that outside.”
Rosenberg says there are some spaces that could supplement a mall for walkers, but only in the sense that they are large and indoors. Big-box chains like Burlington Coat Factory and Target are options, along with hardware stores like Home Depot and Lowes. The resource guide notes that faith-based or school venues may also be attractive options. But this discounts the diversity of space and structures that make malls optimal for walkers. No other venue contains a food court, bathrooms, benches and, of course, stores in a secure, weatherproof environment.
Right now, the threat of malls becoming a skeleton of late capitalism is looming. And, although Americans are finding less use for them, it is fascinating to think that there is nothing really like them. Even the inventor of the shopping mall, Victor Gruen, envisioned malls as civic centers that housed public art, libraries, daycares, and community halls, along with retailers. His original concept morphed into standalone cubes on consumerism that he would come to denounce two years before his death, saying, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” But despite his hatred for what he created, Gruen did manage to invent something oddly irreplaceable. Even if you hate them, there’s nothing quite like a mall.