SANFORD — Skip Murphy’s daily walk takes him through the toys, past the electronics and around the dairy cases to the produce section. Then he does it all over again.

The Sanford man, who is accustomed to walking around Number One Pond when it’s not the middle of winter, now heads inside to work out in an unlikely place: the local Walmart store.

“I never thought I’d be walking in Walmart,” Murphy, 68, said halfway through his daily walk. “But it was a no-brainer for me.”

Partners for Healthier Communities, one of three local Healthy Maine Partnerships in York County, has teamed up with Walmart in Sanford to promote the idea of using the 198,000-square-foot store as an indoor exercise track. One lap around the store is a quarter-mile, roughly equivalent to one lap around a typical high school’s outdoor track.

Since the kickoff to the promotion effort last month, store employees have seen walkers every day, often as soon as the store opens at 6 a.m. A colorful banner promoting the program hangs just inside the store entrance.

“During the winter in Maine, it’s difficult to get out there to walk,” said Betsy Kelly, director of Partners for Healthier Communities. “This is a safe place for people to come.”

The idea of indoor walking is more often associated with large shopping centers such as the Maine Mall in South Portland, where walkers can traverse a one-mile course past all the clothing retailers, sporting good stores and food court. But the walking program at Walmart appears to be unique to Sanford.

Walmart management in Maine and in the company’s corporate offices have not heard of similar programs being promoted elsewhere, but are hoping the idea spreads. Although the mall continues to be a magnet for walkers, the use of a big-box store such as Walmart expands access to more far-flung and rural communities.

“This just made sense,” said Merilee Perkins, program director at the Sanford-Springvale YMCA, who first thought of the idea a couple of years ago as she looked for places for people to be active in the winter. “Wouldn’t this be cool if it picked up nationally?”

The idea is already being picked up at the Walmart in Biddeford, where the Coastal Healthy Communities Coalition is poised to launch the program at 7 a.m. March 1. Organizers there say they may chart out alternative routes inside the store to keep the walks interesting for regular participants.

Organizers say the walking program is a win for everyone involved. It allows Walmart to connect with the host community and potential customers, while promoting physical activity for people who may not be able to pay for a gym membership and don’t have access to any other nearby indoor track.

The Sanford Walmart’s parking lot was dark and nearly empty on a recent morning as Skip Murphy and his wife, Thea, waited outside for the doors to open at 6 a.m. Outfitted in sweat pants and sneakers, they were ready to squeeze in their workout in the brightly lit store before shoppers crowded the aisles. They measured the distance of their walk using pedometers provided to Walmart walkers by Partners for Healthier Communities.

Skip Murphy said his doctor recently advised him to start walking regularly so that he might be able to avoid surgery for circulation problems. With the idea of midwinter walks around Number One Pond seeming a little cold and uncomfortable, he jumped at the chance to stay inside. After three weeks, he already feels his health is improving, he said.

Thea Murphy, director of the YMCA’s Trafton Senior Center, occasionally accompanies her husband on the Walmart walks and encourages other seniors in town to take advantage of the opportunity.

“I think it’s absolutely great,” she said after her first half-mile. “A lot of my folks (from the senior center) come down. This time of year they’re scared to death of falling outside.”

The Murphys walked a mile through the store, or four laps past the Valentine’s Day cards and an electronic toy that played a cheery jingle each time walkers brushed by. At this hour, there were more employees stocking shelves than shoppers pushing carts through the aisles. In the farthest-flung corners of the store, the Murphys had the outside aisle – called the racetrack by some walkers – all to themselves.

Reegan Brown, health promotion coordinator for Partners for Healthier Communities, enthusiastically led a group of about a half-dozen walkers through the store the same morning. She said the organizers promote walking between 6 and 8 a.m. when the store is less busy, but people are welcome to go anytime.

The idea appears to be especially popular with seniors, but Brown said it’s a good opportunity for anyone.

“I hope it will prompt people to be more physically active in general,” she said as she walked past a shopper picking out produce. “Maybe they’ll take a little more time to walk while they’re shopping.”

One brisk morning walk through the store was enough to convince Linda Corliss of Berwick that the program could be invaluable to York County residents. As the director of human resources for county government, Corliss said she is always looking for fun and free physical activities for employees and their families.

“The best part is this is free and right in your community,” she said.

Chip Tracy, manager of the Sanford Walmart, said he was happy to help promote the walking program when the staff of Partners for Healthier Communities pitched it to him. It’s an interesting way to engage with people in the community, he said.

“I walk the store at 7 every morning and I always see people walking,” Tracy said. “I let the walkers know to tell us if they see any obstructions.”

So far, Skip Murphy hasn’t found any obstructions, but he jokes there is a slight downside to spending so much time in a retail setting.

“My wife says I never come home empty-handed,” he said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: 

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Twitter: @grahamgillian