Healthy Choices

Seniors take steps toward better health with mall walking clubs

Just before 8 a.m. Tuesday, Glenn Roth entered at the south end of Sunrise Mall for his tri-weekly morning walk. With two wizened hands, the Sacramento resident gripped his maroon walker and shuffled past potted palm trees, plastic benches and a variety of storefronts before passing by the mall’s food court where – unbeknownst to him – dozens of fellow mall walkers were awaiting his arrival.

Roth recently turned 100, as stated on the “World’s Most Awesome 100-Year-Old” T-shirt he wore Tuesday, and was celebrating the occasion with the Sunrise Mall Friends-in-Fitness program. The early morning walking club, like similar programs at malls across Sacramento, is a testament to the health benefits of putting one foot in front of the other.

“When my sweetie was still here, we said we would stay active instead of staying home and watching the boob tube,” said Roth, who attributes his longevity to the fitness program. “And now I have all these wonderful friends. If I stop walking I’ll get old and feeble, and I don’t want to do that.”

Roth is one of 3,000 mall walkers signed up for the program, which began in 1989 with the support of Mercy General Hospital. About 100 members show up on a daily basis, said Sunrise Assistant General Manager Susie Rodgers, and are let in two hours before the mall officially opens to complete their desired number of laps around the .75-mile ground-floor loop. While the program is open to people of all ages, it largely attracts older adults, who appreciate the security and climate of the indoor mall, she said.

Westfield Galleria at Roseville runs a similar program called Walk to Thrive each Wednesday with the support of Kaiser Permanente, which sends volunteer physicians to lead the walk each week. Dr. Chris Palkowski, physician-in-chief of Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center and an occasional walk leader, said a 30-minute walk five days a week is proven to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, control blood sugar and raise metabolic rate. He also said it strengthens muscles and bones, which is important for older adults with osteoporosis.

“One of the things elderly people have to worry about when they walk is their balance,” Palkowski said. “Uneven ground is problematic because of the risk of falls. The mall is level and smooth and a safe place to walk in a controlled environment. It eliminates some excuses to not walk.”

Walking with a mall club is especially beneficial for older adults because it establishes social circles wherein friends hold each other accountable for staying active, he said. Palkowski also recommends walking for patients with depression and anxiety because of its therapeutic effects.

Sam Hoffman, age 73, attended the Sunrise celebration to meet with his friends and grab some cupcakes for his wife, who walked regularly until she was diagnosed with dementia. While he still struggles with his health, he said it has improved, both physically and mentally, since he started walking at age 65.

“I walked a lap – that’s all I can handle anymore,” Hoffman said. “But I come here as often as I can and I get one lap in . It helps me mentally, to get out for a little. Sitting at home and watching her deteriorate is not OK.”

At Arden Fair mall, the Inside Track program, supported by Sutter Heart and Vascular Institute, offers prizes such as sweatbands and gym bags to walkers who log the most mileage.

“It’s an incentive for healthy living,” said Jamie McDaniels, senior marketing manager for Arden Fair. “From a business standpoint, obviously we’re generating footsteps into the mall and they get exposed to the different retail promotions. But it’s more about generating community.”

Seventy-one-year-old John Hayes is one of Arden’s most accomplished walkers, with 6,300 miles under his belt and a mission to eventually reach 19,465 – his estimate of the number of miles around the world at Sacramento’s latitude. Hayes spends the larger part of every morning at Arden Fair, walking an average of 11.4 miles per day between home and the mall.

Hayes, a Type 1 diabetic, began his mall trek 550 days ago after recovering from a quadruple bypass and leg clots. He made the decision to purchase a pedometer because he wanted to be able to play with his grandchildren, he said. He is now 18 pounds thinner, sleeping better and no longer requires blood pressure medication. Mostly, though, he’s enjoyed getting to know the mall and its staff.

“The mall is a dynamic organism; it’s always changing,” Hayes said. “Earlier this year they put a flagpole up outside to honor war veterans. I was in the mall that day, and I stood outside and it was a very moving event. I would have missed it if I hadn’t been a mall walker.”