I Tried Walking in the Mall Like My Mom Did When I Was a Kid, and Now I Understand the Appeal

Image: W+G Creative
My small hometown mall in North Texas houses so many memories from my childhood. Our mall was where my brother and I got to meet Santa and tell him what we wanted for Christmas. It’s where we would go for lunch after Sunday mass. It’s where I picked out my first “real” bra with my mom (much to my embarrassment).

In middle school, it became my favorite after-school hangout spot. My brother, his friend, my friend, and our moms would trek to the mall after school let out. There, we’d grab a giant Auntie Anne’s pretzel, then split off into three groups and go our separate ways. My friend and I would ogle the walls of Hot Topic, my brother and his pal would hit the arcade, and our moms would power-walk the perimeter of the mall, getting in their steps for the day while gossipping.

Today, it’s pretty obvious that this old mall has seen better days. Some stores sit completely empty, while other once-popular chains have been replaced by cell phone repair shops. And despite a generous renovation in the early 2010s—complete with a new food court—our hometown mall, like many others, has fallen victim to the online shopping boom and ever-changing landscape of American retail.

Malls might not be as fun as they once were, but I still remember enjoying the times I spent in ours as a kid. I also remember how much my mom valued the time she got to spend walking and talking with her girlfriends there.

I went mall walking, and here’s what happened

During a recent trip back home, my long-time best friend hit me up to see if I would tag along for a last-minute mall trip. She needed new resort clothes to wear to a destination wedding in Cancún, and didn’t have time for them to ship. Eager to get some walking in (and potentially buy something for myself), I happily obliged.

Going through the double glass doors was less like stepping into a time machine and more like stepping through a wormhole into another dimension. Some spaces seemed familiar, and others were completely alien to me.

Zombie movie set, or peaceful mall? You decide.

For one thing, it was practically empty. Save for a few sporadic groups of two or three, my friend and I felt like the only ones wandering around.

The old Auntie Anne’s was still there, but not open, so no pretzels for us. Hot Topic had vacated its lease, leaving a giant goth horseshoe-shaped door frame for the new owners, a pop-up sneaker store. Our brief trip to Dillard’s revealed one of the last untouched corners of the original building, dingy 90s carpet and all.

After discussing the stores we definitely wanted to check out, we set off walking the inside perimeter of the mall, just like our moms used to, peering into stores new and old along our way. I’ve been aiming to get 10,000 steps a day on top of my weekly workouts, so I used our mall walk as a way to hit my last 6,000 steps. Because distance—not speed—was our priority, we took things slowly.

Now that my mom lives on the other side of the country, walking down the mall’s concourse—the same one my mom had walked hundreds of times throughout my childhood—felt like a full-circle moment. Once upon a time, my badass mom (and maybe yours, too) would spend hours walking the mall while we kids explored. Walking the mall myself, I came to realize just how underrated mall walking really is.

5 reasons why indoor mall walking is such an underrated form of exercise

1. There are plenty of places to get food and water

Workouts require fuel. And especially for the 37.3 million Americans who have diabetes, having easy access to blood-sugar-leveling foods and drinks during a workout can provide peace of mind.

We could have easily packed our own mid-walk snacks and drinks, but really, why would we? While our hometown mall might be a shadow of its former self, a few food court options were still hanging on. With a Starbucks in Barnes and Nobles and a nondescript smoothie shop, we had more than enough refreshment options—and that’s not even including the water fountains.

2. There’s easy bathroom access

IFYKYK: Some small bladders can’t wait for a lengthy neighborhood stroll to finish. As a leading member of the Tiny Bladder Club, having a bathroom within immediate proximity at all times was a massive relief (no pun intended). For those who deal with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or urinary incontinence, knowing a loo is nearby can be incredibly reassuring.

3. They’re temperature-controlled

Walking during spring and fall is sublime; walking during the summer or winter, depending on your proximity to the equator, can be straight-up dangerous. Extreme heat and cold can make neighborhood strolls miserable. Thankfully, indoor malls have running A/C and heat year-round, and cover from the rain. When the weather gets in the way of your daily steps, the mall is there for you.

4. It’s free

Most gyms provide all of the above, but they also charge you money to use their facilities. Malls are open to the public and are completely free to enter. You might feel pulled to spend some dough at their stores, but there’s no fee to walk around in them.

5. It can give new purpose to indoor shopping malls

Blame it on Amazon, if you must, but one thing’s certain: The internet has forever changed the way we buy things. Since we can now order everything from meal kits to sofas online, is there really a public need for shopping malls anymore?

While many empty malls have been repurposed to become high schools, colleges, and even apartment buildings, many more shopping malls across the United States sit mostly vacant, despite having some operating stores and staff. Using shopping malls for additional purposes on top of retail can breathe life back into these spaces that, though weak, still have a pulse.

Personally, I felt completely energized by our walk and the way it gave me a chance to reconnect with a friend after time spent apart. I got to indulge in some retail therapy and get my steps in without overheating or succumbing to my seasonal allergies.

The nostalgia alone was worth the visit. I was able to relive the happy memories of mall visits past while injecting some cash into what used to be my hometown’s biggest earner.

After working up a sweat—and buying our fill of resort attire—we stepped into an ancient photo booth for laughs. It started as a joke, but during the second photo, I became overwhelmed with gratitude; gratitude for the happy memories I got to experience here with my family and grateful for the life paths that my best friend and I were on now as grown adults.

I know, I know. We're hilarious.

The close proximity in time to the shooting at Allen Premium Outlets that took the lives of eight children and adults, however, wasn’t lost on me. In 2023 alone, there have been more mass shootings than days. For some people, the idea of going for a stroll in the mall might not seem worth the risk, and I don't blame them. But for me, during our brief walk, I was overcome with gratitude for my family, friends, and the childhood mall visits we'd all regularly taken together.

American malls are few and far between today—blink, and you’ll miss your own becoming a distribution center. Maybe that’s for the best; I don’t know. What I understand and appreciate now, though, is that mall walking was so popular among our parents for good reasons, and if my hometown mall was to be boarded up tomorrow, well… I’m glad I went for one last stroll.

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