Phillips neighborhood resident Fred began walking two miles a day – or about 4,000 steps – after learning he had diabetes.

This summer, he joined the eight-week Phillips Million Step Challenge to walk beside his neighbors. “I wanted to inspire others to walk and make a difference in their own lives, too,” he said.

The challenge is part of Wellness 50+, which is a three-year program to improve the health and wellness of people age 50 and older. The program is led by Vital Aging Network (VAN). It also has activities in St. Paul’s Hamline Midway neighborhood, Oakdale and Alexandria. HealthPartners and the Bush Foundation both give financial support to the program.

Three of every four adults age 50 or older could develop a chronic illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is because they are overweight. Plus, almost half of adults age 65 or older already have at least two chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

“Developing healthy habits is the best thing you can do to improve your health,” said HealthPartners Vice President for Health Management and Chief Science Officer Nico Pronk, PhD. He is also an advisor for Wellness 50+.

Wellness 50+ promotes eating healthy, staying active, mental health, and illness and injury prevention. Walking increases energy, helps manage weight and stress, and strengthens muscles and bones.

Only one in ten adults over age 65 in the United States gets enough exercise each day. The Phillips Million Step Challenge encouraged participants to walk 500 miles together over eight weeks. That adds up to 1 million steps. It is a spinoff of the HealthPartners’ 10,000 Steps® program, which encourages members to take 10,000 steps each day to help them get as much physical activity as adults need.

During the challenge, residents each set a goal of the number of steps they wanted to take each week. Then, they worked to increase that amount.

Roy and Amy, a couple in their 70s, were eager participants. While Roy walked with a group called the “strollers,” Amy walked with the “striders.” “I want to walk with some vigor!” she said.

The walkers received free pedometers and charts to track their steps. These helped maintain interest and motivation. They also met on Tuesday nights to walk together.

“It’s important to connect with others as we create a culture of wellness,” VAN Program Director Julie Roles said. “This is especially true with older adults because they have a higher risk of isolation. We felt a strong sense of community among the group who walked together on Tuesday nights.”

Despite walking at different paces, the entire group supported each other.

Bruce and Cookie, a couple in their early 50s, both used scooters when they started the challenge. “Each week I walked for as many steps as I could,” Cookie said. “Then I continued on with the scooter so I could be part of the group.”

More than 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day – a pace that will continue for 15 more years. By 2030, 72 million Americans will be 65 or older. And by 2050, experts guess the number of people age 85 or older to be 4.3 percent of the population. That is more than double what it was in 2010.

To learn more about Wellness 50+, visit the Vital Aging Network’s website.