Habit stacking to get fit

written by Philip Stefanov  |  JANUARY 17, 2023

A while back, James Clear published an interesting article titled “How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones.” I strongly recommend checking it out.

The ideas inside intrigued me because the article presented a new way of looking at building habits. More importantly, the ideas were quite simple and actually seemed effective.

To that end, I’ve thought about how habit stacking might work in the context of fitness, so let’s talk about it.

But First: A TL;DR On Habit Stacking

As we live, do things, and gain experience, a process called synaptic pruning occurs in the brain. It means that the brain eliminates connections between neurons that go unused while strengthening those that are used.

When you practice specific activities, the connections get stronger, making you more skilled and capable. In simple terms, this is a biological change that occurs when you develop a skill.

Habits like brushing your teeth, making your morning coffee, and tying your shoes also affect neuron connections. The more you do something, the more skilled you become, and the easier it is to do without thinking.

The idea with habit stacking is that you leverage already existing connections to develop new habits more easily. But how would that work?

How to Use Habit Stacking For Fitness Behaviors

As mentioned, every habit you build strengthens specific neural connections in the brain and contributes to the pruning of others that don’t get used. So, instead of starting from zero, you can leverage existing behaviors to introduce new ones.

For example, a person who brushes their teeth every day will find it much easier to start flossing than someone who doesn’t practice either. Instead of putting conscious thought into getting to the bathroom daily to care for your dental health, you’re already doing something. So, just make it a point to floss before brushing your teeth.

According to James Clear, the habit stacking formula is this:

“After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”

For example:

After I get home from work, I will do a quick 5-minute stretching routine.”

So, to use the principle in fitness, you must identify some of your current habits and see if you can pair them with new, positive behaviors.

For instance, if you’re already into the habit of tracking your calories, you can pair it with calculating your protein:

“After calculating my calories, I will calculate my protein intake.”

Similarly, you can pair weight training with stretching:

“After I finish my last set, I will stretch the muscles I trained for three minutes.”

Of course, you can stack fitness and non-fitness habits for the best outcomes. Identify some of your current practices and see if you can fit other positive behaviors into your days.

For example, it could be as simple as, “After I make my morning coffee, I will add a sweetener instead of sugar.” Or “After I pick up meat at the supermarket, I will walk to the produce section and pick up two types of fruits and two types of vegetables.”

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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