Don’t you love the early phase of a fitness commitment?
It’s like the first-date phase of a relationship: full of excitement, enthusiasm, and hope for the future. You’re making gym-time a top priority, scrolling through Insta looking for new moves, and shopping for the latest gear. (Is there such a thing as too many pairs of yoga pants?)
But, like many relationships, your fitness flirtation can fall from red-hot to ho-hum as the days go on. The reality of a fitness commitment—and the resulting sacrifices and lifestyle changes—can often derail a fitness relationship in its early stages.
It turns out, there’s an easy-to-use trick that can help your commitment stick: habit stacking.
How Habit Stacking Helps Your Daily Fitness Habit
Do you brush your teeth immediately after getting out of the shower each morning? Start your coffee immediately after getting out of bed?
Many of your behaviors throughout the day are triggered by the action you took before.
You wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
You buckle your seatbelt after getting into the car.
These actions are so automatic you don’t even have to think about them. Your mind has linked these two actions together and cues you to move from one to the next.
You can harness your brain’s ability to link behaviors together to create an unbreakable fitness habit in your own life.
It’s a trick known as habit stacking.
“One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top,” says James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits.
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The Habit Stacking Formula
In his book, Atomic Habits, Clear provides an easy-to-use habit stacking formula:
After [current habit], I will [new habit].
Here are a few ways you could stack fitness habits into your existing routine:
- After I wake up each morning, I will put on my gym clothes and shoes.
- After I drop off my kid to school, I will go to the gym for a workout.
- After I leave my desk for lunch, I will go for a walk around the complex before I eat.
- After I leave work each night, I will go to the boxing/yoga/barre studio on my way home.
- After I finish the dishes at night, I will take my dog for a run.
- After I brush my teeth in the evening, I will lay out my workout clothes and running shoes for the next day.
The key to success with habit stacking is to tie your newly desired habit into something you already do each day, like waking up, brushing your teeth, leaving the house, or preparing for bed. The things that happen day after day, rain or shine, and often without you consciously thinking of them.
You’ll want to choose a habit stacking cue that occurs at the same frequency as the new habit. Here’s what that means:
If you tie going to the gym to taking your kid to karate practice—which she only does on Tuesdays and Thursdays—you are likely to get into a 2-days-per-week workout habit.
Which is fine, if you’ve made a “2-days-per-week” your goal.
But if you want to make a commitment to daily workouts, you’re going to want to tie your new fitness behaviors to an existing daily habit. Maybe that means you leave a medicine ball next to your front door so you can get in a medicine ball arm workout as soon as you get home every day.
Tie your daily goals to an existing daily habit.
Make Life Easy
No rule says this has to be hard.
The easier it is for you to get your daily workout done, the more likely you are to keep it up and have that habit stick for good.
So make it easy!
If your mornings are hectic—getting kids ready for school, packing lunches, rushing out the door for carpool pick-up and dropping the dog off at the groomers before work— don’t try and force a workout routine into your already crazy morning schedule.
Instead, tie your fitness routine to your lunch hour or evening when you don’t feel so rushed and over-scheduled.
Maybe your day gets busier as it goes by.
In that case, the easiest path to daily fitness might be a sunrise boot camp or early-morning gym session before the rest of your family wakes up.
Schedule your fitness habit to fit your life and schedule, not your idea of the “ideal” workout time and place.
Just like any goal, habit stacking gets more successful as it gets more specific and actionable.
“After I drop off the kids, I will work out,” is a perfectly fine habit stacking formula.
But making this even more specific and actionable can supercharge the power of this habit stack.
“After I drop off the kids at 7:30 am, I go to the 8:00 am cycle class,” is much more specific, and more likely to become ingrained as a daily habit.
You don’t have to stop with one habit stack.
You can keep stacking until you’ve created a full healthful, fitness-focused day!
- After I get out of bed at 6:00 am, I put on my workout clothes.
- After I drop off the kids to school at 7:30 am, I go to the 8:00 am cycle class.
- After I get home from cycle class at 9:30 am, I make a protein smoothie for breakfast.
- After I finish my protein smoothie at 9:45 am, I fill my water bottle for the day.
- After I break for lunch at noon, I walk 20 minutes before I eat.
- After I cook dinner at 6 pm, I pack up healthy leftovers for the next day.
- After I brush my teeth at night, I lay my workout clothes out next to the bed for tomorrow.
Ready to take your fitness relationship to the next level?
The people who have unbreakable daily fitness habits aren’t superhumans. They’ve just figured out how to fit workouts into their existing routines easily.
Habit stacking is the easy trick you can use to ensure your fitness flirtation transforms into a meaningful, rewarding, and, best of all, long-lasting relationship.