Five years ago, Nettie Menaged was 30 pounds heavier with a dangerously high cholesterol level of 360.
Now, her cholesterol level is down to 225. She says a change of diet and her exercise regimen, walking laps at Owings Mills Mall three times a week, improved her health.
Mrs. Menaged, 71, says that in the five years since she and seven others started strolling the mall, she has logged more than 1,500 miles.
"We don't have to worry about the weather, besides which it's very pleasant to window shop," she said.
Fellow walker Eleanor Cohen joked, "Yes, we look in the window, and then we go shop for it later."
More than 200 of the walking program's 1,200 registered members gathered at the mall's food court Tuesday to celebrate the program's fifth anniversary.
Begun in 1987 by nurse Anna Dorothy Zink, manager of !c educational services at Baltimore County General Hospital, the program has been credited with improving the physical stamina, as well as the social and mental health of its members.
"A lot of friendships have developed, and a lot of people have become really close," says Ms. Zink.
One couple met through the program and married, and the support of new friends especially helps those who have lost a spouse, said Ms. Zink.
As many as 250 walkers come to the mall in the hours before it opens. They are restricted to walking around the second level, which measures a half mile. Many have abandoned other forms of exercise, preferring the convenience and camaraderie they say the program offers. For those who exercise under doctors' orders, the mall also is a safe place.
"A lot of my people have breathing difficulties, and the air outside isn't good for them," says Katy Johnson, a nurse at BCGH, where seniors make up 50 percent of the patient population.
Ms. Johnson is on duty at the mall from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday to offer medical assistance to the walkers.
Few problems have occurred because of the walking program.
Lois Walden, a BCGH nurse and health and wellness educator, yesterday recalled how walkers who stretched before walking left fingerprints on the mall's brass railing.
At the request of mall officials, Ms. Walden agreed to ask the walkers not to touch the railing. The first gentleman she asked pulled a can of brass cleaner and a rag from his sweat suit and told her not to worry about the fingerprints.
"He wiped all his fingerprints away himself," she says.
According to Samantha Ostertag, manager of the mall's retail operations, having the walkers around also benefits the mall.
"They really are our best eyes and ears," she said. "If there's a chip in the tile, or something that someone could trip on, they're the first to let us know."
Three or four days a week, Florence Rosenthal, 71, sets her alarm just so she can meet her friends and walk at the mall.
"It sounds crazy for a retired person to set an alarm," she said. "But [walking] keeps you young."