Fitness in France

Okay… Lets talk about health and activity in France.

We’ve all heard it – Americans are disgustingly obese, French people eat smaller portions and walk everywhere and are all the vision of health, all striking the seemingly-impossible balance between being able to eat dessert and baguettes every day without eating the entire dessert and baguette everyday. Exampe: the book French Women Don’t Get Fat. After living here for a few months I can’t say I fully agree.

First of all, there is a stereotype that everyone here is slender. Nope. I can definitely attest to the fact that that is not true. Yes there are plenty of slender people, but there are overweight people all over the place. There are plus size clothing stores. Statistically, France is around 40-50% overweight (including ~15% obese). What I have observed is that people in general are smaller than in the US. Whether or not they are overweight, their frames are just smaller than those for Americans.

I find the French approach to activity hilarious. I shouldn’t… it is probably much more balanced and sustainable than the way Americans do things. I have concluded that whatever Americans do, we do to an extreme. Fit people in America tend to be really fit. People who don’t exercise in America really don’t exercise. In France, I routinely see people running home from the boulangerie carrying a couple baguettes. Women wear their scarves at the gym, and Nike wedge heels have somehow been accepted as workout shoes?!?

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WHY ARE THESE EXERCISE SHOES?

The French (Europeans in general, really), walk and bike places so much more than we do in the US. Cars are not very practical or really necessary, so there is more activity weaved into their daily and weekly rhythm than a lot of people in the US. A number of the French, however, don’t go to the gym or do routine workouts. Since I joined my gym here, I’ve seen their idea of a workout. Yes, there are some people here who are really quite fit. The majority, however, are not. Their workouts are much more mild than what you tend to see in the US. You just aren’t going to see very many really athletic people here. I’ve never felt as strong as I do here…. I lift just as much or more than so many of the men in my gym (can’t complain about that!).

As a competitive, all-or-nothing type of person, I can’t say I don’t catch myself looking down on the French style of activity and movement. But, the truth is, they have a much more balanced + accessible movement lifestyle than what people think of fitness in the US. This is probably also related to the prevalence of sports in the US vs. France. Sports are not a big deal here, only some people participate, and they are not nearly as time consuming… there isn’t really a competitive side to exercise.

In terms of diet, it is another case of extremes. I’m not sure they ever got the memo about a lot of the popular diet ideas in the US (like no white starches, for example). A balanced French meal has a starch (rice, couscous, pasta, potatoes, bread), a meat, some veggies, bread, and a dessert (often a fruit + dessert yogurt). Let me tell you…. these meals can be BIG & rich. Frenchies won’t snack in between meals though, which is a huge difference. But this way of eating is standard, even for the body-builder types I’ve observed.

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What we eat for lunch at the lycée, a pretty standard example of a cooked French meal. (zucchini soup, beets, potatoes, cauliflower with sauce, cassoulet, a pudding type dessert)

I can say the French style of eating does NOT work for me. I can’t eat really large lunches and dinner everyday. It feels like too much, and I find it very difficult to not snack in between meals (regardless of how much I ate with my meal). Moreover, I find that eating a dessert at most lunches and dinners (even if it is just fruit or yogurt) makes me want to keep eating desserts after I finish eating. Also, once I start eating a baguette, I can’t really stop 😉

Anyways, these are my generalized observations and opinions. Not true for everyone, but definitely what I’ve noticed up here in Nord-Pas-de-Calais

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