Meet the walkers of Lakeside Mall | Jefferson Parish

On a steamy Tuesday morning in July, well before the stores unlocked their doors, dozens of people streamed into Lakeside Mall and began walking.

A few used canes or walkers, others pushed strollers. Some strode with focus and intensity, while more social walkers took their time and talked in groups.

They traversed the mall’s outer perimeter in a counter-clockwise rotation amid a cacophony of gossip, pop music and the occasional squeak of shoes. Aromas from the food court wafted through the air.

While running clubs have recently gained popularity as a social outlet for young people, walking groups have been meeting for decades at indoor malls, including at Lakeside in Metairie. 

Many are retirees, who seek solace in the climate-controlled space, an ever-important factor as summers get hotter. After a few laps, some stay to sip on Cafe du Monde and chat at the food court.

Carol Wedig and Mary Beth Gerosa, both of Metairie, said they began walking the mall about 25 years ago after dropping their kids off at school. 

“We started as moms of grade-school kids getting together, and now they’re grown and we’re still walking,” Wedig said, noting it has helped her fitness and sleep. 

Climate-controlled exercise

The mall officially opens for walkers at 9 a.m., but employees let in people waiting outside the P.F. Changs entrance at 8:45 a.m., said Erin Graham, a spokesperson for Lakeside Mall. Before the pandemic, the mall opened at 6 a.m. for walkers, but cut back its hours because of the expense, she said.

Ali Phillips, a spokesperson for Oakwood Center in Gretna, said that mall has about 25 to 30 regular walkers, a number that typically grows in the colder months.

As temperatures rose Tuesday morning, a few dozen walkers streamed into Lakeside for their morning exercise, including Darryl Schmitt, 70, who routinely strolls his 2-year-old grandson Jaxon.  The other walkers know Jaxon by name and recently made a fuss over his hair cut, Schmitt said. 

Lakeside Shopping Center is filled with in the early morning hours with walkers hoping to get daily steps in in a climate controlled setting. (Staff photo by John McCusker, The Times-Picayune | ORG XMIT: NO.mallwalkers.adv STAFF PHOTO BY JOHN MCCUSKER

“I don’t know if everybody knows everybody, but you see the same groups and you wave at them hello,” he said. “Everybody’s real friendly, and you’re out of the elements.”

Dr. Rachael Kermis, system medical director for Ochsner 65 Plus, said 30 minutes of cardio is recommended three to five times per week. Walking is easy on the joints and can improve cardiovascular health and bone strength, as well as mental health, mood and memory, Dr. Kermis said.

“Really walking can help with a whole slew of things, from heart benefits to the mood to the GI system,” she said.

Particularly for seniors, malls offer a climate-controlled environment with consistent air quality on days with high pollen counts or Saharan dust. That’s an ever-important factor as temperatures get hotter. Last summer, New Orleans experienced record-breaking temperatures. Weather forecasters are predicting another above-average summer. On Tuesday evening, the heat index had only dipped to 99 degrees by midnight.

For people who struggle with mobility, there are plenty of seats for taking breaks. 

Studies have shown exercise, including walking, releases endorphins and can be as effective as anti-depression medication. Social isolation has also been shown to increase chances of having a heart attack. Walking groups can give you both benefits, she said.

“It’s really almost like a one stop safe place to do your fitness,” Dr. Kermis said.

Marriages, friendships 

Ray Boudreaux, now 81, began walking the mall about four times a week with a friend to stay active after he had bypass surgery.

“It offers old farts like us security, air condition, bathrooms, water and lots of comradery,”  Boudreaux said, as he sat with a group at the food court. 

Most stores don’t open until 10 a.m. or later, but Gwendolyn McClendon, who has managed the Lakeside Cafe du Monde for about 25 years, opens the coffee shop at 9 a.m. for walkers. 

A number of regular walkers know her by name. Boudreaux called her the “queen of the mall.”

Before the pandemic, McClendon organized a weekly dice game in the food court for the walkers called “left, right, center.” Now, not as many walkers stay and chat after they exercise. But for those that do, “this is their bar, they come in, get a drink and are ready for some conversation,” she said.

Lakeside throws Christmas, Easter and Cinco de Mayo celebrations for the regulars with Cafe du Monde coffee and donations from stores. Walkers bring baked goods and dishes to share, potluck style.

McClendon said she has watched relationships blossom among the mall walkers, many of whom have lost partners and turn to the walking community for companionship.

“They come through here and I get to know them,” she said, scrolling through decade-old photos on her phone of past Easter celebrations. Some who can’t walk anymore are brought in by their children to visit with McClendon.

“We became a family,” McClendon said. 

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