- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

It is barely 8 a.m., and Nancy Jones is pumping her fists as she walks from one end of Fairfax County's Fair Oaks Mall to the other. She will pass Talbots and Macy's, the Gap and Mrs. Field's Cookies. There is no time to shop. That's OK, because the stores aren't open, anyway.

Mrs. Jones, of Fairfax, is here for a mall walk. Forty minutes of walking the mall at a brisk pace, and Mrs. Jones, 57, feels like she is doing her part to keep herself fit.

"I try to come here every day," she says. "I'm not really an exerciser, but this is easy. I'm here, I get it over with and on with my day. I like being in an enclosed environment where rain doesn't matter."

Mrs. Jones is not alone. Several dozen people are walking near her on this morning and countless others are walking at malls nationwide.

Walking is the most popular form of exercise for Americans age 55 and older, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association of America, a Florida-based industry group.

Walking in a mall is particularly appealing for older Americans because it is climate-controlled. Some walkers say they feel it is safer than walking on a street. Others stick to it because of friendships they have formed with other mall walkers.

"You try walking when it is 10 degrees or snowing or raining," says Frank Wright, a 90-year-old Centreville man who can be found at Fair Oaks most mornings. "This makes a much better environment. There are no hills or curves or dogs."

Mr. Wright and his wife, Mary, have been coming to Fair Oaks for about 10 years, and they have formed ties with other members of the Sneakers and Speakers walking group. The group of mostly senior citizens has coffee and danishes together after getting in a few laps. They also have monthly speakers and weekly free blood-pressure checks with a nurse from Inova Fairfax Hospital.

The group's leader is Tom Hatcher, an 82-year-old retired airline pilot from Centreville. Mr. Hatcher has been walking at the mall for 22 years and running Sneakers and Speakers for 12. He has coronary artery disease and had bypass surgery but still walks about a mile at Fair Oaks six days a week. He says daily walks help keep his cardiovascular system from deteriorating.

"We do it for our health," he says of the group, "but it is also a great social thing."

Walking for health

Danishes aside, the seniors are doing something valuable for their health, says Barry Franklin, director of cardiac rehabilitation at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., and a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine.

"Unquestionably, walking is a preferred form of exercise for older people," he says. "It is an easily accessible activity. It fits in with the U.S. surgeon general's recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days."

That moderate exercise will help maintain cardiovascular fitness, which can help reduce the risk of heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans, as one of every two men and one of every three women will develop coronary artery disease, according to National Institutes of Health estimates.

"Aerobic fitness declines 1 percent a year after age 20," Dr. Franklin says. "But if you get on a walking program and keep it up for three months, you can increase your aerobic fitness 15 to 20 percent. That results in a functional rejuvenation of about 15 to 20 years. So a 60-year-old on a walking program can get the same fitness they had when they were 40."

Exercise also can help combat osteoporosis and keep blood pressure down as well as control weight and obesity-related conditions such as diabetes, says Dr. Frederick Kuhn, a Baltimore cardiologist.

"As we get older, we tend to gain weight, our cholesterol goes up, and our blood pressure rises," he says. "One of the good things to counteract all those conditions is exercise. Walking on a regular basis can keep one's weight under control and lower one's risk of heart attack or stroke."

Exercise can have an effect on a person's overall health including mental function as he or she ages, Dr. Kuhn says. One recent study at the University of California at San Francisco found that walking may help elderly women experience less mental decline.

The study, presented in May to the American Academy of Neurology, tested the cognitive abilities of 5,925 women ages 65 and older at intervals six years. The women who walked the least were most likely to develop cognitive decline 24 percent of them had significant declines in their test scores, compared to 17 percent among the most active group.

The least active women walked an average of a half-mile per week. The most active women walked an average of nearly 18 miles per week.

"We also found that for every extra mile walked per week, there was a 13 percent less chance of a cognitive decline," says neurologist Kristine Yaffe, the study's lead author. "So you don't need to be running marathons. The exciting thing is there was a 'dose' relationship that showed that even a little is good, but more is better."

Getting the benefits

Dr. Kuhn recommends walking at a moderate intensity about a 2.5-mph pace for about 25 minutes at least three times a week for maximum effect. He tells patients to walk continuously during that time for maximum cardiovascular benefit.

Other doctors, however, say the benefits of exercise are cumulative. Dr. Franklin says two 15-minute walks will have just as positive an impact.

"If you go on two short walks, you can put it in the fitness bank," he says. "I tell my patients that four quarters is a dollar in the piggy bank."

However, once a walker attains a greater level of fitness, he should re-evaluate his pace and distance, says Dr. Neil McLaughlin, a Reston chiropractor and director of Personal Best, a marathon training group.

"Once fitness improves, there is going to be a plateau," he says. "You may want to add more intense training, such as picking up the pace for a bit, then backing off. For instance, pick a storefront about 50 meters down and walk fast to it, then recover."

Wearing the right footwear is also crucial in mall walking, particularly because so many malls have unyielding surfaces such as marble or concrete, Dr. McLaughlin says. He recommends running shoes rather than walking shoes.

"I prefer running shoes because of the superior cushioning and motion control," he says. "However, for people with gait problems or lower-extremity weakness, walking shoes may be more appropriate due to their lower profile."

Even though mall walking is a social outlet not to mention a way to see what is on sale it is important to take it seriously for it to impact health, says Susan Kalish, executive director of the Bethesda-based American Medical Athletic Association.

"You should set specific goals and write them down," she says. "Shoot for duration, not intensity or mileage. There is a point where if you are walking for fitness or performance, that will level off. But ifyou are doing it for your health, it will always work."

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