I was in France this summer and it’s something I notice every time I’m there: the slimness of the French people. It’s really quite incredible. By now, I suspect we’re all familiar with the French Paradox. It’s the fact that the traditional French diet is filled with goodies we North Americans tend to view as waistline disasters: butter, cream, cheese, croissants, chocolate, rich sauces, foie gras…
And yet, the people of France are slim and gorgeous. When Mireille Guilliano wrote her NYT bestselling book “French Women Don’t Get Fat” many years ago, she attempted to explain this phenomenon to a North American audience. And because I was just in France for our family summer holiday, I’m going to devote the next few weeks’ worth of blog posts to this intriguing phenomenon.
Grab my free PDF cheatsheet: French Health Secrets
HOW THE FRENCH STAY IN SHAPE WITHOUT EVEN TRYING
What I’ve noticed about France is that while there is no shortage of bread and crepes and croissants and wine and cheese (thank heaven!) there is also this little phenomenon: the French don’t exercise.
Not in the way we think of exercise in North America, at least. Here, exercise seems to be synonymous with “the gym”. When I ask patients if they exercise, they always assume I mean going to the gym.
In France, you are hard pressed to find an actual gym.
In the average Parisian block, you’ll trip over ten places to have coffee, get a fresh baguette, watch a film, enjoy a spectacular lunch…but no gyms. There may be a couple of yoga studios or very small boutique fitness studios. But that will be about it. So how are the French staying fit?
EXERCISE À LA FRANÇAISE
This is how the French exercise: they walk. They walk EVERYWHERE. They walk to their local food market—everyday (something I’ll talk about in a future post in this series, because it’s key!). They walk to the cafe, to museums, to work, to meet friends for lunch. The French are constantly out on the streets.
Jogging, non. At least, not as much as you would see in North America. When I go for a run along the Vancouver waterfront—especially if it’s a beautiful summer day—I’m surrounded by a mob of fellow runners (if it’s a rainy day, only slightly fewer). In contrast, when I went for a run in Paris last month along the Seine, there were definitely other runners but not nearly as many as you’d expect (plus a few rollerbladers, clearly transported there from the mid-1990s). I definitely noted more runners this time than I’ve seen in previous visits, although perhaps they were all expats and tourists. In other parts of France, however, I received plenty of confused and vaguely discouraging looks from the locals walkers on the streets when I’d go for a run.
Besides walking, the French also bicycle. Cycling is a passion and a way of life there. We happened to be lucky enough to be in Paris this time when the Tour de France entered the city for the grand finale—an amazing spectacle. Clearly, the French are serious about the sport of cycling. But it’s not just for athletes. You will see all kinds of cyclists in the cities and the countryside alike: women in dresses with little dogs in baskets, schoolboys, men in suits, cycling to work. Paris has a fantastic bike rental system, the Velib, so you can hop on and off a rented bicycle anywhere you want to go.
HOW TO APPLY THIS PRINCIPLE TO YOUR OWN LIFE
You might be wondering: can cycling to the market from time to time really take the place of my gym workouts?
Here’s what the research is showing:
A little while ago, a study looked at the health benefits of riding a bicycle to do errands, like going to the store. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin statistically analyzed what would happen if the 31 million people living in the Upper Midwest did some of their short-distance errands (defined as 2.5 miles one way) by bike instead of by car. Their conclusions? If people ran even half these errands by bike instead of car, 1,100 deaths would be avoided each year. And there would be a $7 billion savings in health-care costs.
So how can we use this information?
Now that we’re in the dog days of summer—which likely means there’s a farmer’s market somewhere in your area—why not be inspired by that French habit of cycling to the market or on short errands? It’s much more stylish and glamorous than taking the car, and it’s a pleasurable way of living…which is something else I’ll be writing about a lot more as we go this month.
If you like the idea of adopting a more French approach to healthy living, I’ve put something together for you: a free printable PDF cheatsheet of French Health Secrets.