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October 4, 2023 | 4 minute read

What is Habit Stacking and Why is It Important?

Key Takeaways:

  • Habit stacking is a way to build beneficial lifestyle habits onto your existing daily habits.
  • You can use habit stacking techniques to follow AICR’s 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations and can stack more exercise or nutritious eating habits into your daily routine.
  • Habit stacking includes four stages that help walk you through the process. This blog outlines the cue, craving, response and reward stages of habit stacking.

What is Habit Stacking?

Habit stacking is a practice of building new habits onto existing rituals to make meaningful changes in your day-to-day lifestyle. Habit stacking can be used to build AICR’s 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations into your routine. You can stack habits such as more exercise or better eating habits into your day. 

How Does Habit Stacking Work?

Some daily rituals are steeped in routine. Perhaps you get out of bed and brush your teeth. When you repeat the pattern often enough, it becomes automatic, and you don’t forget these steps as you begin each day.

If you build new habits on top of established habits, you have a better chance of making the new habit become routine. The idea of habit stacking is simple. Let’s say you want to add a 10-minute walk to your day, but you often forget. If you plan to take the walk right after you perform an established habit, such as brushing your teeth, you’re more likely to remember it.

Why does habit stacking work? Neurons in the brain are information messengers that support behavior patterns. Some researchers posit that the more you do something, the stronger and more efficient the neuron connections become.

What are the Four Stages of Habit Stacking?

To begin habit stacking, you need to understand the four stages:

  1. Cue: The first thing you do begins the process. For example, you wake up and walk to the bathroom with morning breath.
  1. Craving: Your motivation. It’s what drives your need to do something based on the cue. In this case, you feel the need to brush your teeth to clean your mouth.
  1. Response: The habit you perform, such as brushing your teeth.
  2. Reward: What you gain from the response to the cue. In this case, it’s fresh breath and clean teeth.

These stages are vital to make the habit a ritual. Studies show it takes about 60 days for the new habit to become routine. Stick with it! If you miss a day, don’t abandon your emerging habit. Just try again tomorrow.

How do I Start Habit Stacking?

Let’s use an example to show you how to stack more physical activity into your usual routine.

Imagine you want to stretch more often to improve flexibility and keep your joints working well. Here’s how to work that goal into the four stages of habit stacking:

  1. After I eat breakfast while sitting on the wooden chair in my kitchen, my joints feel tight when I get up (cue).
  2. I want to feel more limber (craving).
  3. I am going to do 10 minutes of stretching after breakfast (response).
  4. My joints will feel better and my flexibility will improve (reward).

Habit stacking works best when the cue is very specific and when it happens regularly, such as waking up or eating a meal. A cue such as “when the phone rings, I will. . .” is too vague (because you never know when the phone may ring) and won’t allow for consistent habit stacking.

Examples of Habit Stacking

Not sure where to start? Pick one of these fitness ideas (and suggested cues):

  • Go for a walk (after breakfast)
  • Do a yoga or Pilates workout (after you brush your teeth)
  • Practice tai chi (after lunch)
  • Follow a stretching routine (after you walk your dog)
  • Lift weights (while you watch Jeopardy!)

A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine shows that just 11 minutes of physical activity per day—such as a walk—may lower the risk of premature death. The large meta-analysis included more than 30 million participants who self-reported their activity levels. Researchers found that people who got 75 minutes of moderate activity per week had lower risks for overall mortality, heart disease, stroke and several cancers compared to inactive people. While guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week (20 minutes per day), this new research shows that even a bit of physical activity is better than none. Stack 11 minutes of activity into your day (75 minutes per week) to get started with this beneficial habit!

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