When you think of a shopping mall, what comes to mind? It probably isn't physical fitness. But take a closer look at those long, flat, well-lit corridors and consider the possibilities. Shopping malls are the perfect place for exercisers looking to beat the heat (or cold or rain) while they walk their way to better health. In fact, mall walking has become so popular that government officials have started to take notice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published its first mall-walking manual (pdf) with the goal of helping malls around the country enjoy the benefits. The manual, called the Mall Walking: A Program Resource Guide, is no flimsy pamphlet. It's an exhaustive, 50-plus-page manual that covers everything from the costs to the benefits to the potential pitfalls of starting a mall-walking program.

Why would you walk in a shopping mall? Depending on the weather, maybe the question should be why wouldn't you? Mall walking removes many of the barriers to exercise. For starters, malls are climate-controlled and weather-proof. It's never too hot or too cold or too windy in the mall. They are well-lit and safer than walking on the streets. Mall-walking routes are also generally flat and convenient to bathrooms, benches and water fountains. And when a mall-walking program is established, it offers exercisers a place to socialize with other walkers in a safe, convenient setting. Another big plus: it's free, eliminating the need for gym membership fees or track club dues.

What's in it for the mall? In an era when brick-and-mortar shopping malls are losing sales to online stores, it pays to get people in the door any way you can. Mall walkers get to know the stores in the facility and take notice of things like sales or special promotions while they walk. And after the walk, many walkers hit the stores or the food court for breakfast and socializing.

Mall walking has been around for decades, but no one really knows how many malls have established programs and how many want help getting started. That's the emphasis of the CDC guide, to help pool information about long-running mall-walking programs and encourage more malls to join the trend.

Offering people of all ages and abilities a safe and convenient place to exercise is a win-win for everyone involved. Check out the mall walking program at your local shopping center — and if they don't have one, send them the CDC guide.

Related on MNN:

CDC releases resource guide for mall walkers
Need a place to exercise that isn't hot or cold? Check out an indoor shopping mall.