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What is Habit Stacking? How to Achieve Your Exercise Goals

May 08 2024 8 min read

We all live busy lives, and sometimes, finding the time to exercise doesn’t always go as planned. But this is where habit stacking can take your routine to the next level. 

Written by S. J. Scott, ‘Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less’, the concept is simple: add a new habit to your current habit to create a ‘stack’ and watch your life shift for the better.

In this Fitness First guide, we’ll walk you through everything there is to know about habit stacking and fitness and how you can easily incorporate these new habits into your daily life. 

What is habit stacking?

Habit stacking is a strategy used by some fitness enthusiasts where you ‘stack’ a new habit onto an existing one. This aims to create simple, manageable and repetitive actions that don’t seem too overwhelming and contribute to your overall fitness goal. 

In terms of fitness stacking, this would involve chaining a new exercise to a current daily habit. For example, if you always shower in the mornings, think of adding a quick 10-minute workout before this. 

Essentially, by linking this new behaviour to one that’s already currently ingrained in your routine, you won’t have to rely on willpower to motivate yourself to exercise regularly — you’ve already done the hard work!

Examples of habit stacking

Sometimes, finding when and where you can habit stack can be a challenge, especially if you have a regimented routine. But here are some examples of how you can easily habit stack throughout the day:

  • Morning routine stacking — When brushing your teeth in the morning, you can do a 5-minute stretch session immediately after. This means you’re starting your day with physical activity, and it doesn’t require finding extra time throughout the day.
  • Commuting stacking — If you take public transport to get to your job, why not get off a stop early and walk the rest of the way? This seamlessly integrates more steps into your day. 
  • Evening routine stacking — If you watch your favourite shows in the evening, commit to doing movements like sit-ups, push-ups or yoga poses during the ad breaks. 

What are the benefits of habit stacking?

There is a wide range of benefits around habit stacking and exercise, and some of these include:

  • Improved consistency — By linking a new fitness routine with a habit that’s already well-established, you’re more likely to stay consistent. Remember, consistency is key to progress with your fitness.
  • Better habit formation — Habit stacking helps simplify the process of building new habits by integrating them into your daily life. This lowers the mental barriers we sometimes feel around exercise, making it a less daunting experience when it’s incorporated into your schedule. 
  • Time efficiency — When habits are stacked, they save time and combining habits means you’re multitasking in a healthy way. For example, if you’re doing a few exercises while waiting for your food to cook, it can be an effective use of time. 
  • Increased motivation — Seeing progress in one habit can boost your motivation to maintain others. Stacking habits with activities you enjoy can make the movement or exercise feel much more rewarding and enhance your overall motivation to keep going. 
  • Enhanced focus on goals — Habit stacking helps keep your fitness goals on your daily mental checklist — think of it as something simple like:
    • Wake up
    • Brush Teeth
    • 10 Minute Stretch
    • Coffee

This helps to keep your goals at the top of your mind and can drive you to focus on your fitness objectives. 

What are some common obstacles you face with habit stacking?

When it comes to integrating habit stacking, a few common obstacles can hinder your progress and make you feel like you’re always starting over and over. Recognising and addressing these challenges early or when they first crop up can help improve the chances of forming lasting habits.

1. Inconsistent triggers

One of the foundational elements of habit stacking is the trigger that initiates the new behaviour. If the trigger isn’t consistent, it can be challenging to help establish this in your routine. For example, if you decide to do a quick 5-minute jog every time you get a work email that isn’t urgent, this trigger won’t be consistent enough to form a reliable habit.

Solution — Choose triggers that occur more regularly and predictably in your routine, such as when you’re having a morning brew, brushing your teeth or starting your lunch break.

2. Underestimating your mental resistance

Whether aiming to run a certain distance or wanting to incorporate more movement into your routine, even the smallest of new habits can cause mental resistance. This is especially true if the habit isn’t something you particularly enjoy or doesn't feel like a significant addition to your routine.

Solution — It’s best to start with incredibly small, almost trivial additions to your routine to help minimise resistance. Start with just one minute of exercise after your trigger and gradually increase the time and pace as it becomes more ingrained in your routine. 

3. Lack of immediate rewards

Sometimes, the best way to incorporate something into your routine is to ‘reward’ yourself. 

Fitness and exercise often don’t deliver immediate results, which can diminish your motivation over time, especially when fatigue or boredom starts to creep in. 

Solution — Incorporate immediate rewards into your habit stacking. For example, why not listen to your favourite artist or podcast only when you’re exercising? This creates an instant, positive association and reward for completing an activity. 

4. Overcomplicating things

Adding too complex or time-consuming activities into your routine right away can overwhelm you and disrupt trying to integrate these new habits into your routine. 

Solution — Keep any new habits simple and quick to complete. Over time, as these become almost second nature, more complex or longer activities can be introduced gradually and once you feel ready. 

Are habit stacking and goal setting the same thing?

While they might sound similar, habit stacking and goal setting actually go hand-in-hand when it comes to fitness. 

Goal setting is a crucial component of habit stacking and can dramatically improve and transform how you see and complete your fitness journey. It involves setting clear, achievable targets that help guide your training and progress — remember, it’s not just about the endpoint but the small steps you take to get there.

When you think about goal setting, it’s a good idea to split these out into three attainable measurements:

  • Specificity — You should make sure that your goals are clear and well-defined. If your goals are vague or generalised, you’re more likely to throw in the towel and not stick to them.
  • Measurability — It’s always a good idea to track your progress and see how you’re getting along and when you achieve your goal. If you aim to run a certain distance first thing in the morning before you start work, apps like Strava and Nike Run Club are great for checking your progress and holding yourself accountable. 
  • Attainability — Make sure your goals are realistic and achievable with your abilities and the resources you have available. If you want to run a 5k on your lunch but haven’t been able to run 3k yet, then it’s probably best to switch this to a more manageable target. 

How to incorporate habit stacking into your daily routine

Effectively incorporating habit stacking into your routine involves a little bit of planning, choosing the right habits to stack and executing your plan consistently. 

Here’s an idea of how you can stack these habits into your daily routine:

1. Identify your current habits

Start by making a list of all your daily routines and the general times that these happen. Since these habits are already well established — like brushing your teeth and getting changed — they don’t require much thought. These will serve as your anchors or triggers for new habits to form. 

2. Choose a new habit

Select the new habit you want to develop that logically follows one of your existing habits – remember, it should be something achievable and not too daunting; it’s important to aim realistic. 

For example, if you want to increase your physical activity, you might think about going for a short walk, taking a fitness class or attempting some yoga poses. 

3. Create a clear and specific plan

It’s important to create a clear outline of when and where you will start incorporating these new habits into your routine. 

Use the formula “After [current habit], I will [new habit].” For example:

  • After I brush my teeth in the morning, I’ll do 10 minutes of stretching. 
  • After I start the dishwasher in the evening, I’ll do ten squats. 

It’s these small changes that really make a difference. 

4. Implement and track your progress

Once you’ve implemented your new habit into your routine, it’s good to keep a record of your progress so you can see your success. This could be as simple as marking it on a calendar or using a habit-tracking app like Streaks

Tracking helps to maintain your motivation and makes it a whole lot easier to see your progress over time. 

5. Celebrate the small wins

Give yourself some form of positive reinforcement each time you successfully complete one of your new habits. This could be as simple as a mental pat on the back for making it this far, or why not go for something a little bit more tangible, like allowing yourself a treat or watching an episode of your favourite show after completing a week of stacked habits?

6. Adjust as needed

Be flexible and willing to adjust your stacked habits as needed.

If you notice that a particular stack just isn’t working — such as if a trigger isn’t consistent enough or if a new habit feels too daunting — reassess and adjust your approach. Maybe switch the habit to a different trigger or simplify it even further, like reducing the number of reps or movements you do — there’s no shame in adjusting to how this works for you and your body. 

Get set with Fitness First

We know that getting set on your fitness journey can be a challenge, but that’s why habit stacking can be a great way to get moving and introduce new or exciting exercises into your routine. 

At Fitness First, we have a wide range of fitness classes available for you to try; with everything from HIIT to Spin, Yoga and Boxercise, you’re sure to find a class that’s the perfect fit. 

For more information on all things fitness and nutrition, head over to our blog page or book a club visit. Find your nearest gym today.