So you always thought the best parking spot was in the front row?

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota wants you to move back. Way back.

The state's largest health insurer is taking over a handful of outlier parking spaces at shopping malls across Minnesota this month to encourage people to sneak in a few extra footsteps on the way inside. The idea is to remind shoppers that small behavior changes can have a big health impact, particularly amid an epidemic of obesity that cuts short lives and weighs down the health care system with added costs.

"If you talk to anybody who at one point was inactive, you find they started making one little change -- they took the steps up one flight at work instead of the elevator ... or they started carrying in their groceries one bag at a time," said Dr. Marc Manley, chief prevention officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. "Pretty soon they were doing a lot more physical activity." For the campaign, Eagan-based Blue Cross is spraying remote parking spaces with a message of action: "Today is the day we burn calories by parking here."

The promotion is part of the organization's "do" campaign, which began in 2005 as a workplace effort to get Blue Cross members to take the stairs. The promotion has endured and expanded into a broader effort focused on community health, Manley said.

About 61 percent of Minnesotans are overweight or obese and 66 percent have sedentary jobs, according to Blue Cross. Experts recommend 30 minutes of daily exercise, which can be broken into five- or 10-minute chunks.

Barbara Loken, a University of Minnesota marketing professor and expert in consumer psychology, said tactics such as what Blue Cross is trying can be effective.

"The use of color and simple explanations help people trigger certain thoughts that, 'Yes, this is relevant. This is important to me in my life,'" she said. "Even if they don't actually use the space, it increases awareness that the number of steps you take going into the mall is important for your physical health."

The campaign runs through August at nine malls in the Twin Cities area as well as in Albertville, Duluth, Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud. Twin Cities malls taking part are Southdale Center in Edina, Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka, Eden Prairie Center and Maplewood Mall.

While Blue Cross will get some branding mileage out of the parking lot campaign, it's another example of how the message is changing for insurers who see promoting a healthy lifestyle as good for business.

"We no longer think of marketing as just applying to commercial products and services," said Loken, who has studied how mass media campaigns change health behaviors.

"Now there's the marketing of social ideas," she said. "You're not trying to get people to go talk to their doctors. You're using sophisticated marketing techniques to get people to remember things quickly and easily."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335