As fitness professionals, it is our job and responsibility to provide the best opportunities for our clients to succeed in their goals. In addition to providing customized, individualized workout programs, many times, we seek to help change their behaviors, especially in the realm of nutrition.
The traditional model of behavior coaching has taught behavior coaches to identify where the client is on the spectrum of the Transtheoretical Model (1), and then, speaking to them in language that fits their level of readiness to accept change, aims to change unwanted behaviors to healthier ones.
For instance, your client may be drinking energy drinks throughout the day. You know that for your client to see the results you have promised her in the time frame she wants, this behavior is probably sabotaging her efforts. So general coaching advice would be to instruct her to stop drinking the energy drinks and replace them with a healthier alternative, such as water.
While sound in theory, this can often leave the client with feelings of deprivation. The moment you tell someone to stop doing something that they enjoy, or has become a habit, the more they tend to want that thing. Then when life gets hard one day, they end up drinking five in a row. Or worse yet, they never really stop, even though they are telling you they have.
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As we age, our brains perform something known as synaptic pruning. The basic idea is that your brain prunes away connections between neurons that don't get used and builds up connections that get used more frequently.
For example, if you practice Olympic lifting for ten years, then your brain will strengthen the connections between those neurons. The more you practice, the stronger the links become. Not only that, the links become faster and more efficient each time you practice. As your brain builds stronger and faster connections between neurons, you can express your skills with more ease and expertise. It is a biological change that leads to skill development.
Meanwhile, someone else who has never Olympic lifted is not strengthening those connections in their brain. As a result, the brain prunes away those unused connections and allocates energy toward building connections for other life skills.
Synaptic pruning occurs with every habit you build. The more you do something, the stronger and more efficient the connection becomes.
Everyone has powerful habits and connections that they take for granted each day. For example, your brain is probably very efficient at remembering to brush your teeth each morning or to brew your morning cup of coffee or thousands of other daily habits.
Habit Stacking identifies a current daily habit, one that your client is currently doing, and stacks a healthy practice on top of it. This method, which was created by BJ Fogg as part of his Tiny Habits program (2), can be used to design an obvious cue for nearly any habit.
Take our energy drinking client, for example. She has strengthened the synaptic connections in her brain to drink an energy drink every day. Instead of coaching her to stop drinking energy drinks, a Habit Stacking approach would coach the client to continue to drink the energy drinks, but to also drink 8 oz of water after each one. This method avoids the deprivation feelings, and attaches a new, healthier habit, to an already existing one. Doing so makes the client feel empowered, not deprived, and has a higher chance of success.
The reason habit stacking works so well is that our current habits are already in our brains. You have patterns and behaviors that have been strengthened over the years. By linking a new practice to a cycle that is already built into your client's brain, you make it more likely that they will stick to the new behavior.
How to Implement Habit Stacking
No matter what the new habit is that you are adding to your client's routine, it is essential to find the right cue to ensure their success.
To find the right cue or trigger, you may want to brainstorm with your client all the daily habits they do each day without fail. Nothing is too small. Now you have a list of things that they do every day, and you can decide together which ones you can stack a new habit on to ensure success.
For instance, if you want your client to eat breakfast each morning, but their morning is chaotic with getting kids ready for school and getting to work, then you may be setting your client up for failure. Consider when to add a new habit in their daily routine at a time when they are most likely to be successful.
Habit stacking also works the best when the cue is very specific, and the new habit is immediately actionable. If you want your client to get more activity throughout the day, then coaching them to "walk more" is likely too vague. When do they walk? How far should they go? Instead, coach them to "walk for 10 minutes every day after lunch." This is hyper-specific and has a definitive goal set.
Check out this blog on Nutrition and Behavior Change for more great examples on habit formation.
1. Prochaska, J.O., Redding, C.A., & Evers, K. (2002). The Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change. In K. Glanz, B.K. Rimer & F.M. Lewis, (Eds.) Health Behavior and Health Education: Theory, Research, and Practice (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
2. Fogg Ph.D., BJ. Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything. December 31, 2019