Is one of your new year’s resolutions to exercise more or be more physically active? If yes, where have you been doing your exercise routines? Nowadays, many people immediately think of private gyms like LA Fitness or 24 Hour Fitness as the most effective and/or popular places to get fit. But as we all know, gym membership is not cheap and not everyone can afford it. As I explained in my article Where Do You Exercise, there are other options, such as Fitness Zones at public parks, multi-use trails, the city itself, and the YMCA, which are free or more affordable. Also, as part of my dissertation which was completed in 2011, I explored alternative locations or ways to offer recreational services, including: the joint use of school facilities; the introduction of recreational uses on land owned by utilities; mobile gyms; transportation of residents to outside recreational facilities; and temporary use of parking and vacant lots, reuse of existing buildings, and temporary closure of streets for recreational purposes (see also this article).
A location that I have not discussed or given much thought to was shopping malls. Frankly, shopping malls have escaped my attention because my focus has been on underserved communities which typically lack quality retail options or facilities. Also, it was not until I spent two weeks in the Midwest in December that I recognized or appreciated how important large indoor spaces like malls are in areas with harsher weather conditions than in Southern California. In this article, I would like to discuss how shopping malls are being used for exercise and recreation, and functioning as parks in some ways.
During my recent stay in Springfield (IL), I frequented White Oaks Mall which is the largest enclosed shopping center in Central Illinois (912,000 square feet). It was during these visits that I came to realize that mall walking is a popular activity that is encouraged and supported by the shopping center. For example, White Oaks Mall publicizes on its website that the mall is open for mall walkers Monday through Saturday at 8:30 a.m. and Sunday at 10:00 a.m. (before stores open) and that a lap around each level is equal to about half a mile. While Southern Californians can probably think of many better locations for long walks than shopping centers, mall walking as a form of exercise actually makes a lot of sense for older adults and in places with tough external conditions, such as extreme temperatures and inclement weather. It is a safe, comfortable physical activity mode that is often recommended by health care providers because malls offer free, accessible, and pedestrian-friendly environments. Shopping centers are desirable places for walking because they provide a sheltered indoor environment free from the dangers of automobile traffic, and can be used most days of the year regardless of weather or seasonal differences. Security guards are usually around so people feel less fearful and vulnerable when walking in malls than outdoors or in more unpredictable environments. Additionally, malls have flat surfaces, benches for places to rest, restrooms, and drinking fountains.
For more information about mall walking, I highly recommend reading this detailed resource guide prepared by the University of Washington’s Health Promotion Research Center and is available on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s website. According to this guide, shopping malls have become the second most frequently used venue for walking, behind only neighborhood sidewalks. This article in The Atlantic about mall walkers is also very interesting and offers insights into the growth and popularity of mall walking.
Indoor Children’s Play Areas
While mall walking appeals more to older adults, shopping centers are also catering to the needs of children and families through the provision of indoor play areas. White Oaks Mall, for example, offers the “St. John’s Children’s Hospital Play Area” which I observed to be very well-used during my visits. As a parent, I appreciated being able to take my young daughter to this play area, especially because it was too cold, windy, and/or wet to be outside at a local park in Springfield during the winter months. Indoor play areas can also be found in malls here in Southern California. For example, Westfield Santa Anita in Arcadia is home to two “PlaySpaces” where kids can climb and explore bright, colorful play areas filled with animal characters and large puzzles. Both of these play areas are wildly popular, are often overcrowded (as shown in the accompanying photo), and were developed in partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles (which I previously wrote about in this article). The Children’s Hospital also recently partnered with Del Amo Fashion Center to open a new interactive play area at the Torrance mall. It is encouraging to see such partnerships offer fun and educational places for children to play within shopping centers locally and across the country. After all, as I previously stated in my dissertation and various articles, local parks agencies alone cannot meet all of a community’s growing and diverse recreational needs; instead, all stakeholders, including hospitals, healthcare providers, and even shopping center operators, should be involved collectively and individually to offer additional opportunities to play, exercise, and get healthier.
It is obvious that public parks are not the only places where people recreate. Recreational resources also include facilities offered by nonprofits such as the YMCA and for-profit providers such as private gyms, as well as other places where residents choose to exercise or play. As I explained above, shopping malls have become increasingly popular places to recreate, especially for older adults through mall walking and for children through indoor play areas. Recreation can essentially happen anywhere as long as it is encouraged and supported by design and through policy. It will be interesting to see how and where else people will choose to recreate in the future.
Note: Photos of White Oaks Mall map and Santa Anita Mall PlaySpace by author. Screenshot of Mall Walking: A Program Resource Guide from CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/downloads/mallwalking-guide.pdf).
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.