A Case of the Mondays: Why Do We Start the Week Worrying About Health?

Photograph by Getty Images

People seem to have more heart attacks on Mondays than other days of the week. The reason isn’t well understood—the pattern may be related to weekend binge drinking or work stress—but similar peaks in other health problems, including high blood pressure and stroke, have also been observed early in the week.

Maybe there’s just something about Mondays. People also look for ways to improve their health more often at the start of the workweek, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. An analysis of seven years’ worth of Google search data for terms related to healthy behavior found a significantly higher proportion of searches on Mondays and Tuesdays. Separate research by the same authors found a similar pattern for searches about quitting smoking.

“We see millions of incidences of people thinking on Mondays—and not on other days—about quitting smoking,” says John Ayers, a computational epidemiologist at San Diego State University and lead author of both papers. People tend to view Monday as a fresh start, “akin to a mini-New Year’s Day,” Ayers writes in the paper and explains in a recent TEDx talk. Hangovers—actual and metaphorical—from weekend indulgences may also influence people to choose healthier paths early in the week.

The finding may help public health officials better align their messages with people’s intentions. If you’re trying to get people to give up cigarettes, exercise more, or improve their diets, reaching them during the Monday morning commute may be more effective than on their way to a bar on Friday night.

That’s the goal of the Monday Campaigns, a nonprofit that helped fund Ayers’s research along with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The group began in 2003 as Meatless Monday, an idea by advertising executive Sid Lerner that has been adopted by schools and communities in 35 countries. Three years later, the group expanded its scope beyond diet to exercise, smoking cessation, and testing for HIV, among other goals.

“It’s sort of this unique marriage of marketing and public health,” says Peggy Neu, president of the Monday Campaigns. In the marketing department, at least, public health is usually outgunned. Those trying to encourage healthy behavior—usually governments or nonprofits—have to contend with the ad budgets of industries that profit from our vices and indulgences, including purveyors of liquor, tobacco, and unhealthy food.

Businesses have long understood how timing can influence people’s behavior. According to a study from 2000, tobacco companies, knowing people often try to quit smoking at the start of the year, boosted advertising in January and February.

The tendency of health groups to focus on once-a-year events such as the Great American Smokeout or months dedicated to diabetes or breast cancer awareness may obscure more prosaic opportunities to encourage people to take better care of themselves, Neu says. “Three’s so much focus in public health on annual days and months,” she says, “and people tend to be missing the week.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.