Everyone's a Health Nut on Monday

New research shows that people are more health-conscious at the start of each new week, so health advocates are encouraging everyone to harness the psychological power of Mondays.
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Tradition suggests that January 1 is the perfect time to decide to improve your health. But our collective success rate there is grim: One survey found that only about 17 percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions stick them out for more than one month. So when do we make behavior changes that really stick?

Research has shown that more people start diet and exercise regimes, quit smoking, and make doctors’ appointments on Mondays than any other day of the week. Now, a new analysis of online search queries show that health-related contemplations are also most likely to take place on a Monday.

The study, to be published early next week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that health-related Google queries peak on Monday and Tuesday. They then decline throughout the week before plunging on Saturday and rebounding again Monday.

"These findings show that healthy thinking and behavior is synced to the week, with Monday being the day we're most likely to start healthy," said Morgan Johnson, a co-author of the study. "This suggests that people see the new week much like a new beginning—a January 1st that happens every seven days."

Similar to the 24-hour circadian rhythm that serves as a natural "body clock," a 7-day cycle known as our circaseptan rhythm governs numerous biological functions. Monday spikes, in particular, have been associated with several cardiovascular events, such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, and stroke, as well as infectious disease. Now, says, Johnson, it appears that Healthy considerations, follow the same kind of rhythm.

As part of the study, Johnson worked with researchers from San Diego State University, the Santa Fe Institute, and Johns Hopkins University to monitor queries from 2004 to 2012 for searches that included the word "healthy" or that were Google classified as "health-related" (e.g. healthy diet). Data showed that health-related queries on Monday and Tuesday were 3 percent greater than Wednesday, 15 percent greater than Thursday, 49 percent greater than Friday, 80 percent greater than Saturday and 29 percent greater than Sunday.

Johnson notes that the  "rhythms were unfailingly consistent" across the weeks and were not influenced by factors such as media reporting on health. Knowing that healthy considerations follow a week-long cycle "opens the door for more targeted and, ultimately more effective, health promotion," Johnson said.

An estimated $76.2 billion is spent annually on health promotion programs—money Johnson suggests could be better spent "if everyone were timing their health messages to days of the week when people were most open to hearing them."

That's precisely the idea behind the Monday Campaigns, a joint project of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications, where Johnson serves as research director. The Monday Campaigns' mission is simple: to make Monday the day we associate with healthy behaviors.

"Friday is payday. Saturday is play day. Sunday is pray day. We're trying to make Monday the 'all health breaks loose' day," said Sid Lerner, a former advertising executive who founded the Monday Campaigns.

So far, the Monday Campaigns' most successful initiative has been "Meatless Monday," a movement that asks carnivores to give up meat one day a week for both health and environmental reasons. On average, Americans consume 8 ounces of meat per day—45 percent more than the USDA recommends.

Cutting-back on red meat consumption, in particular, can reduce one’s risk for chronic preventable illnesses—such as colon cancer and heart disease—and help people live longer, healthier lives. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization also says reducing meat consumption can also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions—a leading cause of climate change—produced by the meat industry, and conserve natural resources, such as fresh water and fossil fuel, that are used to raise livestock.

Since its launch in 2003, Meatless Monday has made its way into corporate cafeterias, hospitals, K-12 schools, colleges, and local governments. It is supported by celebrities like Oprah and Sir Paul McCartney. Even meat-loving chef Mario Batali has joined the movement by offering Meatless Monday menu options in all of his 14 restaurants.

Meatless Monday is practiced in 31 countries worldwide in 21 different languages—a testament, Lerner says, "to the universal appeal of an idea that is easy to understand and easy to do." Most recently, the Norwegian Army took up Meatless Monday on one of its bases, with the intent to expand to its bases worldwide.

Based on Meatless Monday's success, the Monday Campaigns has launched several additional campaigns, including Move It Monday (a day to jumpstart physical activity for the week), Monday 2000 (a day to balance our daily recommended calorie count), Kids Cook Monday (a day for children and families to prepare healthy meals together) and Man-Up Monday (a day for young men to get screened HIV and STDs). More campaigns are also under development, including one set to launch later this year that focuses on stress reduction.

Lerner attributes the Monday Campaigns' successes to the fact that they build upon an existing pattern—the week—instead of creating a new one or tying behavior change to a specific date, such as New Year's Day or a birthday or anniversary.

"If you believe that you can only change on January 1st—the inherent message of New Year's resolutions—you will have to wait a whole year before you get another shot," said Learner. "When you associate getting healthy with Monday, you have 52 cues every year to take action."

Lerner also thinks the Monday Campaigns’ success-factor lie in their focus on incremental changes that will translate into making healthier choices overall.

"Going meat-free or whatever change you want to make for one day won't leave most people feeling like they have to deprive themselves," he said. "It's the kind of easily achievable goal that people can build on over time."

And, Lerner adds, "even if you do slip up or fall off the wagon there's always another Monday less than a week away to get it together again."

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Aimee Swartz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post and The Scientist.

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