Sports & Fitness

How to stay fit and healthy the French way

The French have perfected the ability to keep themselves in great shape. Learn how to stay fit and healthy in France without having to don Lycra.

Stay fit and healthy in France

By Rebeca Plantier 

Updated 9-1-2024

There are a few French diet and fitness rules the world could learn from France to stay slim and healthy. It doesn’t mean sweating it out at the gym seven days a week and obsessing over calorie counting. Stay fit the French way – fun, effortlessly and without cutting out your favorite foods – with these six French health secrets.

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Moderation is rule number one

If there is one principal health and fitness guideline for the French, it is the art of moderation. It may not seem earth-shattering, but for many of us it is. Don’t over-indulge in food and drink and never waking up the next morning feeling hung over and desperate. Make time in your day for exercise, no matter what the weather or your schedule. Imagine eating whatever you like in moderation, bringing you immense joy and pleasure, and never gaining weight.

The French method of well-being is available to all of us if we just practice moderation. That means eating three proper meals a day with no snacking in between. Make sure there is a healthy balance of protein, carbs, and healthy fats. If you can do that, a weekly éclair or pain au chocolat won’t derail your well-being or fluff up your waistline.

Exercise for pleasure, not punishment

Forget about boot camp type athletic classes or challenges in France. There is a simple life rule that transcends all facets of life in France, and that is pleasure. If something doesn’t bring you any pleasure, drop it. If exercise is not motivating, too difficult, too hard on the body, the French move on to something else.

There is a high preference for sports such as skiing (fun), cycling (scenic), swimming (invigorating), hiking (quasi spiritual), yoga and pilates (calming), and walking (convenient and easy). Boot camps may exist, but they certainly aren’t widespread. It’s about feeling great during and after your chosen activity. The golden rule of moderation applies here as well. There is no need to go to extremes — either pushing yourself too hard, or not enough. Make sure you do something you enjoy several times a week and fill in the gaps with lots of walking.

Keep moving

Finding the closest parking spot to one’s destination should become an official national sport in North America. The French don’t avoid walking, in fact they pursue it. Whether it’s a walk to the local market for a weekly shop or a stroll to school with the kids, the French insert little pockets of walking throughout the day and the week. At the end of the month, the tally is high, legs are more toned, metabolism is revved, and the extra sweet treat is offset with exercise that fits into even the busiest schedule.

Add in a few flights of stairs every week (or several times daily if you live in one of many no-elevator Parisian apartment buildings!) and you can figure out why the French don’t go the gym that often and still manage to stay slim and fit. They are not slim and fit because they starve; they are slim and fit because they eat in moderation and take every opportunity to insert exercise into daily life without lycra.

Make your abs in the cuisine, not the gym

Take a cue from the French and eat mostly whole, natural, unprocessed foods. They will keep you fuelled, satisfied, and keep your hard earned muscle tone on display.

You can exercise yourself to the ground (trust me, I did before I learned the ‘French’ way), run marathons, race in triathlons and do all the strength-training you like, but if you are going to feed yourself junk food and overload on low-quality carbs and sugar, all your effort will be wasted. Aside from that fact, you will feel lousy from too much exercise and not enough nutrition to fuel yourself properly.

Healthy relaxation is part of the puzzle

The French are masters at listening to their bodies. They know when to stop eating, they know when they need to move a bit more and they definitely know when they need to relax, unwind, unplug and just take it easy. With at least several weeks of vacation a year (usually up to about five weeks), they have plenty of opportunities to unwind with either a leisure activity such as hiking or more proactive approach to relaxation such as massage, sauna, jacuzzi time, extra sleep or even a beauty treatment (facials, manicures, anything goes). Relaxing means bringing more balance to life and regrouping in order to feel good, stay healthy and enjoy life to the max. Don’t be scared of taking time off – write it down in the calendar and your mind and body with say merci!

No age limit, ever

There is something refreshing about the French approach to ageing. Life doesn’t stop in your 50’s or 60’s, instead it takes a turn for the better: more experience, more knowledge of oneself, and more acute listening to your body.

There is no reason the French don’t start a new sport or activity later in life, in fact it is the norm. Taking the plunge into something new well into middle age keeps your brain alert, your body active, and hopefully give you something new to love.