There was a sense of relief that Sunday morning as each new walker stepped into the mall and out of the freezing-cold Maine winter.

With the chill – and, more important, ice covered sidewalks and roads – it can be dangerous to walk outside during the winter months. But we all know physical activity can help us live healthier and happier lives.

That is where mall walking comes in.

The Auburn Mall at 550 Center St. offers people a safe, non-icy, heated haven to walk with friends or in solitude.

The doors open at 8 a.m., two hours before the stores open. While some mall walkers choose to go during regular hours, many prefer the quieter, early morning hours.

Each walker or group of walkers comes in and just starts walking. From each end of the mall, every corner and hall, they walk. All at their own pace, from a training race-walker to a leisurely stroll.

Race-walk coach Tom Menendez of Monmouth especially likes the morning, because he can use it for training.

On this day, he was training Moira Burgess of Monmouth. But Menendez coaches race-walkers from all across the state.

He said he has used the mall to train racers during the winter for at least 12 years.

“It’s open, it’s warm, it gives us a nice place to train,” he said.

Race-walking is quick, and the fewer people who are around, the less chance of running into someone.

“As time goes by, more people come in,” he said, “but it’s nice and quiet in the morning.”

Locals Steve and Liz Dunn said they have been walking at the Auburn Mall for almost 10  years, and they walk for about an hour every Saturday and Sunday morning.

It started after Liz’s dad had heart surgery. His rehab was to walk.

“In the winter that’s not easy, so he came here,” she said. “Our kids were race-walkers, and used to come here to train with Tom, so we knew the mall was open to use.”

She said the activity stuck after that, and they try to come in every weekend. They both work full time during the week, so it is not as feasible to do it then.

“It’s a great inside facility,” she said. “In Maine, you need a safe inside place to walk.”

She said that’s one of the biggest factors, that it is safe.

“This winter especially has been so cold and icy,” she said, “so you can’t go far without hitting ice.”

She also said they like that there is a community of people. You do not always know their names, she said, but you know their faces.

“We’re all trying to stay fit and active for different reasons, and there are no other indoor facilities open to the public in this area,” she said. “There are fitness centers with machines, but a lot of people don’t like that.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, regular brisk walking can help to maintain a healthy weight, prevent or manage various conditions, including heart disease and high blood pressure, strengthen bones and muscles, improve mood and improve balance and coordination.

The faster, farther and more frequently you walk, the greater the benefits.

Regular walker Cindy LaRock said that mall owner George Schott’s policy of having the mall entrances opened two hours before the stores open is “a real gift to people who want to get some exercise in – without having to dodge shoppers –,especially when the weather is either too wet or too frigid to walk outside.”

Larry Fox said he has been walking at the Auburn Mall for a long time.

“Every day but Sunday,” he said. “Gotta do laundry someday.”

He said there used to be a lot more people who came out to walk.

Jim Richmond from Auburn said he comes to the mall every day.

“I’m retired,” he said, “and want to do something for my health.”

Raymond Rivard from Lewiston said it depends on the weather, but he tries to come to the mall every day during the winter.

“It’s just for my health,” he said. “I come and walk, I enjoy walking.”

He said he goes to the mall because during the winter months it is warm inside.

He said during the summer, he gets up about 4:30 to 5 a.m. to walk, but during the winter he has to wait until the doors of the mall open at 8 a.m.

A gumball machine in the foreground frames Mike Kezal, left, and his neighbor from Turner, Lou Giard, as they near center court on a lap around Auburn Mall. Asked how often they come, Kezal said, “Not often enough, but about three times a week.” (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Race-walk coach Tom Menendez of Monmouth gives instructions to one of his athletes, Moira Burgess, of Monmouth, as they train early Saturday at the Auburn Mall before it opens. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Isabella Cavendish of Auburn watches and listens to a music video her son made as she zips around the Auburn Mall during one of her breaks from work at TD Bank. “I walk several times a day on my breaks and it is great that I don’t ever have to go outside to do it.” Cavendish said during one of her breaks. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Guy Gagnon, left, walks with his father, Bert, at the Auburn Mall. “He is 84 and has been walking for the past 50 years. I join him about three times a week,” Guy Gagnon said. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Jim Richmond of Auburn, right, talks with Cindy LaRock, second from the right as they are reflected in a window while walking in the Auburn Mall. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

After walking together so often, Larry Fox and Richard Dehetre fall in line and walk in unison without cadence as they do laps around the Auburn Mall. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

Jim Richmond of Auburn is first to be let into the Auburn Mall, just before 8 a.m. Saturday. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

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