My husband is a gerontologist. My oldest daughter is an RN working with acutely ill elderly patients at a busy academic medical center. They both know that living to 90 or 100 years old is becoming the norm. They’ll also tell you that the habits formed throughout a lifetime can make a big difference in the quality of life as one gets older.

Studies have found that engaging in regular exercise can reduce the risk of certain cancers like breast, colon, and endometrial. Regular physical activity helps maintain a healthy body weight by balancing caloric intake with energy expenditure, and the health benefits of a physically active lifestyle can also reduce the risk of suffering and death from other chronic diseases like heart disease, type-2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and hypertension.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 20% of adults meet the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans of engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. In 2015, the American Cancer Society reaffirmed similar guidelines and estimated that approximately one-quarter to one-third of annual cancer diagnoses could be attributed to poor nutrition, physical inactivity, and obesity.

For many Americans, decreasing sedentary behaviors—such as watching television or sitting at a computer—and replacing them with light-to-moderate activity like incidental walking and moving about can make an immediate impact. There’s accumulating evidence that long periods of sitting, regardless of overall levels of physical activity, can increase the likelihood of becoming overweight or obese, developing type-2 diabetes, increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease and even leading to various types of cancers.

Having worked in cancer prevention and early detection, I’m always curious as to why we haven’t treated exercise and physical activity with the same intensity as a prescription for medication. We send patients away with a handful of prescriptions, which most will dutifully fill and take. Why don’t we give patients a prescription for physical activity instead of simply stating, as they walk out the door, “You should also exercise.” ONS has resources to help oncology nurses get their patients moving toward a healthier lifestyle.

Nurses have the opportunity to be role models to demonstrate the importance of exercise. Personally, I wear a pedometer every day. I strive for at least 15,000 steps daily and, as a nurse, I usually exceed it. I can look and see how many minutes of physical activity I’ve accrued on a daily basis, and I know if I’m at the 300-minute-per-week mark for physical activity. I feel better and sleep better when I make my daily goals. If patients ask me, I will tell them I walk daily and make it priority to get my energetic dog out for exercise too. I make sure to let them know it makes me feel better.

Sometimes patients feel they have no control over their risk for developing cancer. Yet, there’s clear evidence that physical activity decreases the risk for developing malignancies and other debilitating health problems. Healthy habits throughout your life will have benefits as we all get older, but it’s never too late to start. Walking is an easy activity. I challenge oncology nurses to model the importance of physical activity to their patients. I encourage you not to just mention physical activity, but treat it as an important prescription for health and well-being.

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