Three times a week or more, 30-year-old Mary Rietta of Azusa gets a lecture.
"Mom, you shouldn't smoke," her three children--ages 7, 9 and 11--warn one after the other. If her kids aren't on her case about smoking, it might be Rietta's mother, who's been known to count her daughter's beers.
No less subtle is the boyfriend of a 25-year-old businesswoman, who asked not to be identified. The boyfriend, an exercise enthusiast who eats a spartan diet, called her recently when she was in the middle of eating some Haagen-Dazs. "Vanilla with Swiss chocolate almond," she recalls, savoring the description. "Oh, well, that's good for you," he said sarcastically.
Alison Schooley of Burbank, mother of a 6-year-old girl, knows how to eat wisely during pregnancy. But now that the 35-year-old insurance claims adjuster is expecting twins, her mother in Philadelphia often can't resist dispensing long-distance advice: "Make sure you don't gain too much weight."
Nag, nag, nag.
When it comes to your health, everyone else seems to know what's best for you. And they're quick to tell you, point-blank, which habits you need to lose. How else to explain perfect strangers who tsk-tsk smokers and hot fudge sundae eaters in public?
But true nagging, the kind of day-after-day criticism delivered broken-record style, is usually more up close and personal and lobbied by someone near and dear: a spouse, a partner, a parent, an offspring, a best friend.
"You're ordering dessert? I thought you were on a diet."
"You're smoking again? You must hate your lungs."
"Is your butt glued to that couch? I thought you were going out for a walk."
The closer you are to someone, the greater license to nag.
"You wouldn't nag a new boyfriend," volunteers a 26-year-old West Los Angeles office manager, after describing how she has been urging her longtime beau to go to the doctor about a strange growth (she's guessing fungus) between his fingers.
But whether a relationship is at the honeymoon or golden anniversary stage, nagging can get old, for the nagger and the nagged.
And often lost in the push-pull for power, control and action is an unanswered question: Does nagging really help change unhealthy behaviors?
Does it ever inspire the less-than-perfect to eat fewer Big Macs, pass up that last beer, give up cigarette smoking or take up exercise?
Or should naggers just save their breath? The experts are divided.
"I can't think of too many instances when nagging would be helpful," says Jamie Ostroff, a clinical psychologist and chief of behavioral science services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. She works with smokers who have had recent diagnoses of tobacco-related cancers (lung, bladder, head and neck), trying to convince them to give up the habit and enlisting the help of family members. In her ongoing study of what works, so far unpublished, she has found no role for nagging.
"Nagging states the obvious," she says. "It is also not a role that in most adult relationships you would allow a partner to engage in. Nagging is often not good for the relationship."
Even worse, she adds, comments such as "You have no willpower" can erode the self-esteem of the person trying to make a change.
Then there's the danger of the nagger stepping over the line--from helper to enabler. Citing reports from the medical literature about the best ways to help alcoholics stop drinking, Ostroff says, "Partners who take on more than their share of responsibility lower the responsibility level of the drinker."
Nagging can definitely backfire, according to a report published in 1995 in the Addiction Letter. Strategies such as trying to persuade a spouse to drink less when out partying may worsen the problem by provoking arguments, the authors say, and that in turn might lead to even more drinking or drug taking.
"A lot of people will tell you that nagging is what they need," says Nancy Pierce, a health educator at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas who helps figure out how to turn sedentary people into regular exercisers. "I think it probably works with a certain personality. Some people want someone on their backs. . . ."
But for most others trying to become more active, what is most helpful, she says, is the buddy system and information. "Offer to exercise with them. Get them something to read, such as Walking magazine or American Health, that has information about the benefits of regular exercise."
Skip the subscription, counters Richard Cotton of the American Council on Exercise. That's like buying someone a self-help book for their birthday." He does think support such as the buddy system motivates people to exercise, however.
In the long run, Pierce finds, sticking with workouts depends more on personal commitment and readiness to make the change, not on the amount of nagging.