At 7:45 on a weekday morning, you'd expect a mall parking lot to be empty. Not so on the fourth Thursday of the month when the Mall Walkers meet at the Westmoreland Mall on Route 30 east of Greensburg. The event regularly draws as many as 250 participants as rows of cars parked near the Food Court entrance attest.
Walk inside and the area is abuzz as people greet one another, peruse sponsor tables for goodies and information and sit in groups at tables eating and drinking coffee. After a brief presentation by a speaker, the walkers head out, in singles or groups, to traverse the mall before it opens to the general public at 10 a.m. A lap around both levels adds up to a mile.
Some of them are more casual strollers while others are competitive and log in serious distance, including Linda Hauger of New Stanton, who consistently racks up 10,000 steps a day.
Jim Curry of Greensburg and Frank Bassegio of North Huntingdon were recognized in November for walking 6 million steps each during the previous 10 months.
Exercising in the wide, climate-controlled aisles of suburban shopping malls has gained popularity in recent decades with individuals and organized groups. Mall Walkers, which began in January 2012, offers a bit more. The free membership, a collaboration between Excela Health and Westmoreland Mall, includes breakfast and coffee provided by McDonald's and other food purveyors, a monthly educational program and blood pressure screenings given by retired nurse volunteers.
What really sets this organization apart are the 270 pedometers that Excela has given walkers, allowing them to monitor their steps. More than 100 of those participate in a Web-based program from WalkingSpree, which offers wellness and health "solutions" to companies; it tracks daily and cumulative progress.
"This is like a coach in your pocket," said Ms. Hauger." "It motivates me to move."
She joined Mall Walkers when it was formed because she "wants to be healthy," she said. "I had been walking, but not as much." Ms. Hauger, 62, retired after working for the now defunct Standard Observer newspaper in Irwin. She cared for her mother for nine years, and when her mother passed, she decided it was time to do more for herself.
She started alone with Mall Walkers then got friends to join. Now they walk together weekly at the mall.
"We love walking," Ms. Hauger said.
She is also a member of the women's gym Curves and walks additionally at home, averaging about four miles a day overall. "Yesterday I walked in the rain."
She's lost 40 pounds since 2008 through diet modification and regular exercise. And she manages to stay near the top of the WalkingSpree participants, registering fourth place recently and having previously held second place.
"All you need is a good pair of shoes and water. It's cheap. Just get your feet moving."
The 10,000 steps a day that Ms. Hauger achieves is a goal recommended by the American Heart Association, said Jennifer Miele, Excela vice president of marketing and communications.
Mr. Curry and Mr. Bassegio were virtual competitors for almost a year before they met during the ceremony that recognized their 6 million-step achievements with $100 gift certificates from Dick's Sporting Goods.
Mr. Bassegio, 65, joined the Mall Walkers in February 2012 with his wife's encouragement. "She may regret that now," he said with a smile. "It's become an addiction."
In the past year he walked more than 970,000 steps or 4,800 miles. "The computer asked, 'Do you realize that you've walked the distance from the Empire State Building to the Golden Gate Bridge?' Now, I'm on my way back," he said.
Mr. Bassegio also walks in the hilly housing plan where he lives. "There are 12 streets and I walk on every one. It doesn't matter -- rain, snow ... if the snow's too deep for tennies, I wear boots."
In addition to walking about 16 miles a day, Mr. Bassegio works out in the gym to develop upper body strength. The health benefits include having lost 35 pounds. "You feel better," he said.
Both men update their Web accounts nightly.
"I download at 10 p.m.," said Mr. Curry, 64. "I'm still working [on my steps] sometimes at 9:45. I'll check his numbers and he'll check mine. We're never out of first or second place, one or the other."
Mr. Curry, a retired maintenance technician, has always played sports, including football, basketball, volleyball and baseball. He does a lot of walking at home, sometimes barefoot on the carpet. He also starts every morning with yoga stretches. "It helps my back. Then I'm great. I'm good for the day."
Both men report occasional knee problems, a signal to pull back and rest. Mr. Curry had quadruple bypass surgery in 2004; now his cardiologist calls him his "star patient."
He listens to music while he walks and aims for 18,000-20,000 steps by lunch. "Then I can coast to 30,000."
Mr. Curry and his wife watch the fat content and calories of their food, don't add sugar or salt when they cook, and avoid caffeine and fried food. "I do eat," he said, "and I like desserts. I walk them off. Any time I eat, I walk." He's lost 18 pounds, "just from walking."
Michael Egan, mall general manager, said the program "has been doing very well, with excellent attendance every month." People had been walking informally at the mall, but now things are "more organized and much nicer."
The speaker for the February gathering was Asghar Fakhri, a cardiologist, who gave heart-healthy tips. One was the importance of being a member of a community that shares similar beliefs and cultural values. "Research has shown that the effect of belonging to a strong community is similar to taking an aspirin a day," he said.
The Mall Walkers appear to have an inside track.
Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925. First Published March 7, 2013 5:00 AM