It’s 6:00 a.m. on the second Tuesday of the month and more than 30 men and women in matching grey shirts are buzzing around the entrance of a large department store inside Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. This group of individuals aged 50-plus hasn’t arrived early for a holiday sale; they are members of AARP’s L.A. Soul Steppers walking group and they are there to get their walk on.
Standing at the front of the group in a black ball cap, grey Soul Steppers t-shirt and basketball shorts is Erich “Coach E” Nall.
“Ya’ll ready to make it funky today,” he asks. “Ya’ll ready to make today the beginning of our plan?”
The walkers respond enthusiastically before following Nall’s instructions to stretch their glutes, hip flexors and quad muscles ahead of the main event – a brisk walk around the second floor of the mall followed by a cool down, and plenty of encouragement along the way. The walks are sponsored by AARP in Los Angeles and started out in 2016 as a once-a-month occurrence, but due to popularity and demand, walks now take place every second and fourth Tuesday of each month.
Marilyn Harris-Smith, a 66-year old from Los Angeles who attends the walks with her husband, Percy Smith, is one of the many Soul Steppers who looks forward to these twice monthly walks. She says that regular walking in conjunction with visits to the gym and healthy eating habits have contributed to a 30-pound weight loss over four years.
“I love it,” she says. “It’s just so fun.”
Like many of her fellow walkers, Harris-Smith started off with one earnest lap (three laps is the approximate equivalent of one mile) around the empty mall, passing sleepy storefronts and peering down at the custodial crew in the yet-to-be buzzing food court. With time, motivation, and momentum from her fellow walkers – some of whom walk and run marathons – she has improved her time and upped her mileage, passing the five-lap threshold on a recent walk.
“I felt like I did the Boston Marathon,” she says.
In addition to having a fitness professional on hand for guidance, the Soul Steppers also benefit from the physical space and location of the mall. If the walkers were to attempt similar distances in nearby neighborhoods at the same early starting time, they might encounter uneven sidewalks, hasty drivers and poorly lit streets.
Odds are they would also have trouble finding a suitable neighborhood park. According to AARP resources, people over the age of 65 are the most underserved population in terms of having access to parks. This demographic is also the most at risk for being inactive and experiencing social isolation.
“We know that parks and safe open spaces contribute to positive effects on one’s physical, physiological, and mental health. This is especially true for older adults, who often utilize parks and open spaces to help promote physical activity, engage in social activity, reduce stress, and support faster healing and recovery,” says Antoine Cook, Associate State Director for AARP in Los Angeles. “For these reasons, it was vital for us to foster an activity like Soul Steppers that takes the unique needs of local community members into account. Holding the walks inside of a community hub like Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza is valuable for the overall community.”
Nall, who has been working to educate and empower athletes and community members in and around South Los Angeles for 30 years, agrees that it’s crucial to meet community members where they are.
“It’s important that our communities get top notch instruction and support,” he says. “I think me being in the community and knowing some of the things the community goes through in regards to health and wellness helps to a bridge from old school thinking to [current health knowledge].”
As the morning progresses, the walkers continue to concentrate on their strides. They share family updates and commiserate about the early hour. Some talk about how walking has helped them cut down on certain medications. Others make sure to find a moment to share their progress with Nall.
“My belief about health and wellness is that we must first take ownership of our own behavior and life,” Nall says. “What we are building with the L.A. Soul Steppers is becoming a part of the fabric of the individual.”
Harris-Smith is the perfect example of this phenomenon. She and her husband, Percy, showed up at the mall on a recent Tuesday only to discover things were a bit off.
“We were so anxious to go that we went on the wrong Tuesday,” she says. “We did the walk anyway even though nobody was there.”
The L.A. Soul Steppers Walking Group meets every second and fourth Tuesday of the month at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza from 6 a.m. to 7:15 a.m. It’s a free event for people of all ages and abilities. Visit AARP.Org/LASoulSteppers for more details and to register for upcoming walks.