Notes from an exiled Franglais: Why the French are healthier and fitter

Notes from an exiled Franglais: Why the French are healthier and fitter

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Robert Bullock shares his insight on why the French are healthier and fitter than the English despite their love of wine and lack of enthusiasm for jogging.

The countries may only be separated by 34 kilometres (or 21 miles if you are English), their histories inextricably entwined for thousands of years, their languages hopelessly mixed up (cul de sac, le weekend?) but can the French teach their English cousins a thing or two about health and even fitness?

Everyone knows that the French love their wine, especially their sublime Vin Rouge de Bordeaux, not forgetting a glass or two of chilled Provencal Vin Rose when the temperature hits the mid thirties!

For the English, wine has always been the drink of the wealthy, while in France everyone has the right to build up a collection of fantastic vintages in their subterranean caves or their modern equivalent.

Red wine has long been thought to have health-giving properties. My first French neighbour, Guy, assured me it strengthened the heart, before his heart gave in temporarily! He assured me later that a couple of dodgy oysters were to blame and that the red wine had given his heart the strength to restart! His sombre advice to me about staying healthy: Don’t drink wine when it’s young! Leave it to mature. And watch those oysters!

Guy’s theory about the merits of red wine has academic support too. A scientific think tank from St Barts, The London School of Medicine and Queen Mary University in London found a biological mechanism that supports Guy’s theory, claiming that red wine stops the production of a particular bodily chemical that clogs up arteries and causes heart attacks. So drink a little red wine to become as healthy as the French!

But it might not be just what the French drink that makes them healthier than the English, it could be their eating habits too.

Even in the 21st century, fast food is still in its infancy in France, especially rural France. Fast food is very alien to the French because they traditionally like to take their time eating, thinking that this is beneficial for the digestion. Fast food to the French is a five course feast, with a carafe of wine, of course, at a hypermarket cafeteria for less than EUR 10 per head, while fast food to the English is burger and chips on the run or a late-night kebab after a boozy night on the town.  

When I first moved to France in 2001, everything closed in our local town: banks for two hours, supermarkets for two and a half. But in recent years supermarkets have stayed open at lunch time and even the bankers are only taking an hour! Most English workers grab a rushed plastic-wrapped sandwich at their desks, while the French like a full meal with wine, preferably followed by a short nap!

This civilised element of French culture was exported to its colonies, too. But earlier this year, the African country of Gabon decided to scrap three hour lunch times in favour of thirty minute breaks.
The French’s love for robust red wines and their culture of taking ample time to digest food may make the French healthier, but are they also fitter than their English cousins?

You certainly don’t see many people out jogging on a Sunday morning in Chef Boutonne, whilst most English town are awash with them, in their absurdly tightfitting outfits. But drive along any country road in France on a nice spring day and you’ll come across dozens of pelotons of cyclists, and they’re made up of cyclists of all ages too.

But what they fail to tell you is that as they’re out cycling and getting fitter in the process, they are also about to get healthier too. That’s because they are heading towards a nice village bistro, for a leisurely menu du jour, a few glasses of fortifying red wine followed by forty winks in the shade of an old plane tree!             



Robert Bullock / Expatica

Robert Bullock is a British children's writer. He lived in the Poitou Charente area of South West France for seven years. His first book is Noah Ramsbottom and the Cave Elves. His second book Sam Marsh the Viking King was released at the end of 2009. His website is

Photo credit: Carrie (yoga).

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3 Comments To This Article

  • Sandi Lane posted:

    on 3rd February 2010, 15:49:22 - Reply

    I think it's less what they eat and drink than that they eat in moderation and they enjoy life. They don't agonize over calorie counts or fat percentages, and they have fun with friends and family. Their lifestyle has far less stress than ours because they have different priorities. I know plenty of Americans who obsess over diet and exercise...not particularly happy people. I have decided that I'd rather live 80 years happily than 90 grimly.
  • B posted:

    on 3rd February 2010, 14:01:07 - Reply

    Perhaps it is the long holidays...
  • Melanie posted:

    on 3rd February 2010, 13:04:53 - Reply

    I would wager that you haven't walked past a town centre Quick on a Saturday afternoon recently, as the queues show that the French like their burgers and fries just as much as the Brits do.
    And perhaps you don't work in an office in France either, because although my colleagues (all French) and I do generally try to go out for an hour's lunch break to sit down to eat, there are also many occasions when we grab a sandwich just like the British. And sad to say, we never drink a carafe of wine at lunch time.
    On the fitness side, my local park is full of joggers every weekend and many of my colleagues run to keep fit.
    I think life in a French city (I live in Nantes) has got many similarities to life in a British city. I work similar if not longer hours in France, office culture is on the whole pretty similar to the UK although more hierarchical (I work for a French company, not a multi-national), people my age in France have very similar lifestyles to my friends in the UK, and even my parents' generation isn't so different (comparing my French in-laws and their friends to my parents).
    The lifestyle you portray may reflect life in rural France, but in the cities it's not so different from the other side of the Channel.