Let Me Google That: What Our Search History Says About Our Health

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ImacPhoto: Courtesy of Google.
You’ve just downed a glass of water and an egg-white-and-veggie omelet. You're planning to head straight to the gym after work, and you’re shooting for a full eight hours of sleep tonight. It’s Monday — a new week, a new healthy start, right? At least, that’s what your Google search history suggests. A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examined Google search data and found that we care most about improving our health at the beginning of the work week.

John Ayers, PhD, and his team monitored U.S. Google search queries (from 2005 to 2012) that included the word “healthy.” They looked at thousands of these searches — from “healthy recipes” to “healthy exercise routines” — and found that health-related searches peaked on Monday and Tuesday, declined slowly throughout the week, and then rebounded slightly on Sunday.

While it may be true that the media influences what and how we search, these researchers saw a spike in health-related Google News stories and tweets on Wednesdays and Thursdays — when searches for those topics are at their lowest. This indicates we’re not just searching for more info about the latest health coverage. Plus, if the whole search term/human behavior connection seems somewhat hard to believe, know that this isn’t the first time science has made use of the mighty Internet: Google Flu Trends uses search data to make influenza outbreak predictions.

Dr. Ayers' research team offered up a few possible explanations for the health-related search term patterns. First, many of us consider Monday as a “mini New Year’s Day," and getting back to the daily grind of the work week may promote optimistic, healthy planning. Second, poor weekend health choices may promote a desire to "cleanse" on Monday. But, while this clean-start concept makes sense, we wonder if there's another story behind these study results. Think about it: Although some Fridays and Saturdays may involve excessive alcohol consumption and other less-than-nourishing behaviors (hello, 3 a.m. diner food), it’s also very possible that many of us actually lead healthier lives on the weekend. Maybe that's when we finally find time for a long hike, or to cook a healthy meal, or to catch up on sleep — instead of Googling. (Because, Googling is what Monday lunch breaks are for, right?)

So, what can we actually do with this information on health-related searches? In a January TED Talk on the study, Dr. Ayers explained that while our ability to understand health behaviors is very limited, Google search queries may actually reveal more about our attitudes and concerns than we’re willing to divulge to doctors. Granted, this is only applicable in developed countries where many people are fortunate enough to own personal computers or tablets — but that's an issue for another article.

And, in the U.S. alone, where the federal government spends $76 billion on health promotion annually, these campaigns may be more effective if targeted towards the days when Americans are at their most health-conscious. We’re curious — is Monday a "mini New Year's Day" for you? Or are you at your healthiest on weekends?