WALK TILL YOU DROP; A.V. MALL OPEN FOR EXERCISE.
Most people regard the Antelope Valley Mall as a place for shopping.
But hundreds of Antelope Valley residents use it for exercise.
Starting at 6 a.m. weekdays, the mall fills with walkers who circle its shops, finishing their exercise perhaps with a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll.
They say they like its safe, climate controlled environment - free of dogs, traffic and bad weather - and find it a place to meet friends, walking to the sound of water flowing in the mall fountains.
``It's good exercise and yet it's camaraderie,'' said walker Merle Bouche, 68, of Palmdale. ``You get with certain people and touch base.''
Ron Ritchie, 68, of Palmdale arrives about 7 a.m. and will put in three to four miles, then visit with friends over coffee at the McDonald's in the mall's food court.
``It's like the old-time coffee shops - you get together and talk,'' said Ritchie, who has lived in Palmdale since childhood.
Ruth Perkins, 66, of Leona Valley walks as part of her rehabilitation for a knee injury. But she had started her walks even before she injured her knee, and says her attendance is ``part group therapy and part exercise.''
Sharon Matheson, 31, brings along her children: one day last week she toted her 11-month-old baby, Sydney, while pushing 3-year-old Lindsay in a stroller and having Jessica, 9, walking beside her.
``It's only been two weeks and I love it,'' she said. ``I needed some exercise and I couldn't find the time to do it at home so I take my kids to school and come over here every morning.''
The kids enjoy the outing. Other mothers come with little ones in tow, Matheson says.
``We're the brat pack with kids and strollers,'' she said.
Many early walkers are businesspeople, getting in their exercise before work. Many clubs also gather.
About 500 people a month show up for the mall walking period, which starts four hours before the shops open at 10 a.m.
The mall opened for walkers in June 1992, nine months after opening, with 85 people registering. Eighteen months later that number tripled. About 2,000 people have registered over the past six years.
There's even an Antelope Valley Mall Walkers Club, with some 125 to 140 people turning in mileage sheets at the end of the month for prizes.
To help walkers keep track of their mileage, mall officials measured their track: once around the interior perimeter plus two times around the Oasis Food Court equals one mile.
Every Wednesday workers at St. Jude's Home Health Care provide free blood pressure and pulse readings, and on the last Wednesday of each month there is a health presentation.
In January there was a lecture on proper warm-up and stretching techniques. This month they will focus on women and heart disease with food tips and brochures on how to read labels, as well as providing a self-assessment test for at-risk women.
``Many friendships have been formed walking around the mall,'' said Kathy Sommer, events coordinator. ``It's healthy emotionally as well (as physically).''
The mall's Oasis Food Court entrance for walkers opens at 6 a.m. weekdays and 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. McDonald's and Cinnabon also open at 7 a.m. for the early morning walkers. Mall stores open at 10 a.m.
PHOTO (1--Color) Sharon Matheson, 31, totes 11-month-old Sydney while pushing Lindsay, 3, in a stroller during a mall walk.
(2--3) Lancaster residents Thelma Raney and Loretta Fields, members of the Antelope Valley Mall Walkers, right, get in shape during a recent mall outing while fellow member Tony Mainella of Palmdale, above, piles up the mileage.
Jeff Goldwater/Daily News