How to exercise like the French (and instantly feel better about yourself)

As we know, exercise is considered a large part of the ideal American health lifestyle. Americans talk about their gym workouts and exercise classes the way my French coworkers discuss their daily yogurt choices. Besides being a key component of a weight loss strategy, exercise is part of a mental health strategy for many Americans. A fascinating neuroscience article was published recently discussing how exercise improves mental functioning and coping ability (1).  People swear by their fitness routines with religious fervor (looking at you, Crossfit crusaders) and the national end goal is to be an exercise devotee, never missing or skimping on a workout.

Then we get to the French, who for lack of better wording don’t give a crap about working out. I’ve seen one gym since moving here, it is a sad little grey shop with empty workout machines in the window that are so sick of begging to be used, they look like they’ve given up on life. I’ve seen joggers around the Eiffel tower but if you look and listen closely you will see that they are outfitted in lululemon (the ultimate Anglophone workout gear) and speaking in English (i.e. tourists or expats). How can the French be healthier, thinner, and just as mentally healthy (if not healthier) than Americans without ever setting foot in a gym?

It all comes down to definitions. The basic concept of exercising is being active. Americans are purists and interpret this to mean performing a defined activity with the primary and sole purpose of achieving fitness, such as running, strength training, etc. French consider any motion to be activity, and they actually take this quite seriously. In fact they are one of a few countries to highlight basic physical activity as part of their national nutrition recommendations: it is a component of their food pyramid(2). France puts out a free informational booklet with nutritional recommendations for pregnant women, with an entire section on the necessity of daily movement. There is a very clear national message – get off your butt, do it daily, and do it for at least thirty minutes. Almost anything counts: a walk through the grocery store, a stroll through the park, walking to a local café to meet your friend during your lunch break, even your (ideally) nightly romanticism, as they like to say.

I think this could be a powerfully liberating concept for many Americans. If you are one of those fitness nuts who truly loves waking up at 4 AM for your daily fitness routine, then by all means, skip this post and keep doing whatever you are doing. But if you are one of those people who is only mildly interesting in frequenting the gym, gets too busy in your daily life to exercise regularly, and perhaps feels guilty for your lack of fitness fanaticism, why not do it the French way? Rather than forcing yourself to go to the gym, find some activity you enjoy (a walk on the beach, going shopping, playing with your kids) or an activity that you have to do anyway (grocery shopping, cleaning the house, tending to your lawn), make sure you do it for at least thirty minutes without sitting down, and voila, count it as a daily activity (see below for more ideas). How easy is that?? I love this approach to exercising. Without changing a single thing, I have gone from a “sedentary” or “lightly active” American to an “acceptably active” French person. No need to plan your entire day around getting that elusive workout, or feeling bad when your perfect planning inevitably falls through. Just make any type of activity a part of your daily routine, so you don’t have to go out of your way or torture yourself to do it, and you will be exercising à la française.

Here are some French-inspired activities to satisfy your daily requirement:

Activity Added bonuses
·      Go to the grocery store. Every day. Weightlifting (heavy grocery bags), eating fresher food
·      Take the train, and walk to and from the station Decrease your transportation costs and ecological footprint
·      Meet a friend for lunch/coffee/any reason!   Just choose a place at least 15 minutes from where you are Keeping up with your friends. Enjoy tasty food or drinks
·      Go shopping. Ideally an outdoor market where you have to walk from store to store, but an indoor mall can work too Getting your errands done, keeping your closet fresh, treating yourself!
·      Walk to your local boulangerie for a baguette. Repeat up to two times a day. Delicious baguette for your meals. Please note this activity cannot get you to the recommended daily minimum in Paris, since there are bakeries every 5 minutes.
·      Go to a museum or local exhibit Educate yourself
·      Bring your kids to the park The mess they make won’t be in your home
·      Pick your kids up from daycare/preschool/school on foot Not dealing with a confusing carseat and unnecessary tears; upper body workout (if your kids are small enough to be pushed in a stroller or carried)
·      Take the stairs Buns of steel
·      Clean the house A clean house
·      Go for a stroll/walk/hike outside. Choose whatever scenery works for you: park, streets, beach, woods Get some fresh air (which science is showing to have other health benefits), appreciate natural beauty, enjoy alone time or socializing if you go with others
·      Liasons romantiques (Sexytime) Umm, obvious?





  • Re

    Great news, that means I actually completed my new year's resolutions for 2016! Now I can focus on important resolutions for 2017, like stockpiling croissants for the impending apocolypse.

    • EatEnergizeExpect


  • Claire

    Love this post! My daily strolls through Nordstrom will now have purpose.

    • EatEnergizeExpect

      :-) I love that with this philosophy everything you love to do or have to do can have a second useful purpose!!

  • Anne

    This reminds me of a fascinating Harvard study of hotel maids: those who were told their cleaning efforts constituted the Surgeon General's recommended daily exercise (rather than just work) showed improvements in heart rate, body fat ratio, etc. So approaching chores and daily activities as exercise, like you described the French do, will likely cause you to do them more energetically and think more positively about your efforts! Love it. Here's the study:

    • EatEnergizeExpect

      Great article! Fascinating that just changing your perception of your activities (without actually changing your activity level) can cause improved health. Perhaps the most dangerous issue is having a gap in the level of your expected activity as compared to perceived activity (ie setting high and unrealistic expectations of yourself and therefore having a much lower perceived level of activity). How far attitude goes!

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