Chattanooga mall walkers: Making strides toward health and happiness

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / From left, Stephen Pike, David Hawkins, Jerry Ownbey and Mike Hunter walk the Hamilton Place mall.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / From left, Stephen Pike, David Hawkins, Jerry Ownbey and Mike Hunter walk the Hamilton Place mall.

They race across the entrance to Finish Line and dart past Dillard's. They wouldn't dare reveal Victoria's Secret, but they might drop a few coins at Jos. A. Bank.

Yes, the mall walkers of Hamilton Place mall are an energetic group. And they all have a common purpose: to have fun and stay fit.

Two of the biggest contributors to good physical and mental health are exercise and regular social interactions, experts agree. Toss in a little retail therapy and prepare for some serious mind-body maintenance.

Hamilton Place mall has a loyal group of walkers who gather promptly at 9:30 a.m. each morning and spend about an hour to 90 minutes pounding the carpets. The mall has allowed walkers in early ever since opening in August of 1987.

Beverly Williams, a retired TVA nurse, has been walking at Hamilton Place since the 1980s. Williams says she was trying to use Jane Fonda exercise tapes back in the VCR days when she noticed the exertion made her short of breath. Her doctor told her she had exercise-induced asthma and prescribed walking as part of her treatment.

She now walks 26,000 to 28,000 steps a day, including about 90 minutes of exercise at Hamilton Place. She is such a fixture that she's known affectionately as Queen of the Mall.

"People say, 'You would talk to a fence pole,'" Williams says. "If it's the weekend, there's about 13 of us. We chitchat and socialize. Eventually, we break into small groups."

A 20-minute-per-mile split is a good pace for the mostly senior walkers, who can log 3 to 5 miles on their daily jaunts. (If you are a step counter rather than a clock watcher, experts say 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day is a good target to get maximum health benefits.)

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Mike Hunter, David Hawkins, Jerry Ownbey and Stephen Pike

"Some of the folks in our group have been walking about eight years together," says Stephen Pike, a 57-year-old funeral home executive who says he walks about three days a week. "It's a pleasure. It's a gift you can give yourself. We all have an hour a day. It's a very positive experience."

Pike says the walkers have become friends over the years.

"The fact that we can walk with people we enjoy walking with, that's a big deal," says Mike Hunter, 75, who has put in more than a decade with the Hamilton Place walking crew.

"You feel better," he adds. "Your balance is better. Your muscles are toned, and your chances of having an injury or falling are not as great."

Former New York Times columnist David Bouchier traced the origins of mall walking to the 1960s, when doctors learned that they could entice some of their sedentary patients to walk by combining exercise with shopping.

"There's something almost sinister about a big mall when the stores are closed," Bouchier wrote in the Times. "It's like a hospital without patients, or a football game without spectators. The kiosks are shrouded, the store windows dark, and the Muzak silent. The place is eerily full of empty clothes waiting for ghostly bodies, and shoes waiting for improbable numbers of feet."

To the contrary, Hamilton Place is the opposite of sinister at 9:30 a.m. It's a riot of color and activity as merchants busily prepare to meet the new shopping day.

The walkers say that while outdoor walkers enjoy the changing seasons, mall walkers can mark the passage of a year by holiday decorations. Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas all get a turn.

There's also a certain camaraderie that builds up around mall walkers and shop managers. The walkers are at peak pace when the stores start opening at 10 a.m.

"We walk so much that we recognize the owners when they open up their shops," Hunter says. "You'll speak to them. You get to meet a wide variety of nationalities. We all smile and wave at each other."

The mall walkers have one rule that has helped them stay friends: They choose not to talk about politics.

In an election year like 2024, that seems like an excellent idea.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / From left, Stephen Pike, David Hawkins, Jerry Ownbey and Mike Hunter take a lap around the Hamilton Place mall.

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