How The French Stay Fit

“before” at a wedding & “after” at the Palace of Versailles

I recently traveled to France for two weeks. During my stay I had two major observations that seemed highly contradicting. The first was that everyone smokes cigarettes and it’s not uncommon for people to share a beer in the park in the middle of the afternoon. The second was that even so, Parisians still seemed so much healthier and in shape than what I am used to here in America.

I almost never saw an overweight person while in France. I don’t think I saw a single obese person who wasn’t an obvious tourist, the whole time I was there, either. It got me wondering who is actually healthier? How does life expectancy compare from France to the United States? Do Americans live longer because we are slowly cutting down on tobacco and we shame people who have a drink before 5’oclock? Or do the French live longer even though they drink like fish and smoke like chimneys, because they’re not facing the risks associated with obesity?

enjoying a beer with a new friend! This is in the park, around 3pm. When in Rome! I mean, Paris! lol

According to the World Health Organization, France has the 9th longest life expectancy. Hop down to number 31 on the list, and you’ve got the United States. How is it that a country who takes so much pride in their medical and technological advances has a shorter life expectancy?

My theory is lifestyle. It seems to me that a persons overall lifestyle can be healthy enough to almost counteract other bad habits, like smoking and drinking. I am by no means encouraging smoking or alcohol consumption, but rather, inviting you to just think about this. Consider if we adapted these lifestyle changes and didn’t drown in a bottle every night and suffocate ourselves with poisoned air. How healthy could we be then??? if a person can smoke cigarettes and drink booze and still live longer because their general lifestyle is so healthy, how healthy could we be by adapting to the positives only? It’s something worth considering!

The main transportation around Paris is by train or metro. Nearly every station involves a flight or two, but most stations involve much more than that. On the second day of my trip, my friend fell and sprained her knee, making us grossly aware of how many flights we were climbing each day. One station required us to climb 12 flights of stairs. The staircase was spiral, so the end was not in sight. I actually lied to my friend about being able to see the exit, to motivate her up the stairs, when in reality we weren’t even half way there. Most stations had more like 2-5 flights of stairs to take, but even they didn’t make it easy.

This was probably the 3rd or 4th staircase I got to tackle, with a 22kg suitcase and 13kg backpack!

Sometimes there were escalators, but often times they were out of service. I don’t know that I came across a single working escalator the first day I arrived, with 75lbs of luggage to transport. Due to my friend’s injury, we actually did keep an eye out for elevators, and only found them maybe 15% of the time. There’s a district in greater Paris called Montmartre, where we visited the Sacre Coeur. The church is on the top of a hill, with everything else built on the hill around it. In order to get from place to place, a person has no choice but to put in some work on stairs. I LOVE LEG DAY and still, my booty and thighs were sore the next day. (ok, so maybe i ran up and down a few extra flights for fun lol) Who needs a StairMaster with a city like that?

View courtesy of a million staircases in Montmartre! lol Imagine climbing that hill, but the entire climb is stairs!

Bicycles Are Legit Transportation
Most people aren’t traveling by car in France, and it was no different the few days I spent in the Netherlands. So many people ride bikes there, that they have entire parking lots dedicated to bicycles. I have never seen so many bicycles in my life as I saw in a 5 minute stroll through town, ironic having seen the Tour De France just a few days earlier.

A parking lot in Arnhem, Netherlands.

In addition to the parking lots, there are bike lanes on most of the streets. There are lanes for cars, a sidewalk for pedestrians and a lane (with a dotted line and everything!) for bicycles. I saw so few cars on the road there. The only time I even got in a car was for a grocery shopping trip where we were getting a case of beer, among other heavy things. People run their errands by foot or bike. We took the bus once and it was almost empty lol

Pedestrians can walk in the middle or far left or right. The right lanes are for cars, the left lanes are for bikes. It was a rainy day in Arnhem, so not many people were out.

No Soda
My friends pointed out to me that a 12oz bottle of Coke cost about 3€ , close to $4. Meanwhile, I got a basket of about 15 fresh, juicy figs for 2€ at a train station! Which leads me to my next observation:

Fresh, Healthy Food Is Everywhere
This was one of the best parts of Paris. The mainstream grocery stores had plenty of good food, but there were also fresh veggies available in tons of little shops in the middle of the city and where I got my figs, in the train station.

Train station produce!

They also had fresh salads (tabbouleh and shredded carrot were the most common) among other healthy options at nearly every convenience or grocery store. I was surprised and excited to find a ton of vegan foods (faux meats, nut milks, etc) at the grocery stores too. I didn’t go to a single “grab and go” shop that had fried chicken or pizza or corn dogs. Of course there was junk available, but where our stores feel like 80% junk and 20% good food, theirs felt like maybe 70% good food and 30% junk. I saw a couple fast and fried food restaurants, but nothing compared to the saturation we’re used to in the United States. In my experience, it is more convenient to eat healthy food than junk food in Europe.

One of my favorite ‘grab and go’ places called Nostrum. Fresh salads and dishes in microwave safe containers. They provide utensils, plates, and microwaves. You warm it up yourself. Cheaper than McDonald’s and MUCH healthier.

NonGMO Wheat
Another option you could get anyhwhere, for as little as 85 cents, is a baguette. I ate one of those, or a croissant, every single day and never looked like I was delivering a gluten baby or had any kind of diarrhea, as I experience when I eat gluten regularly here in the states. If you read my blog post or saw the YouTube video about GMO wheat and gluten sensitivity, I am pretty sure this is because the wheat in France isn’t GMO. They allow the import of gmo products but not the cultivation, so this means if I buy french bread, made in France with french wheat, it isn’t genetically modified; in other words, its more easily recognized by the body and digested. At first I thought maybe it had something to do with the production of bread in small bakeries; maybe they allow the dough to ferment. But eventually I was eating corner store croissants and baguettes, you know, the cheap kind, and that didn’t make me sick or bloated either. I ate many a baguette with hummus as a meal, and had no discomfort!

The bread indulgence was REAL.

Clean Water, For Free
One of my favorite perks in Paris was that the tap water tastes amazing. Now, I didn’t actually test the chemical or bacterial count in this water myself, but I am a water snob, so if I liked it, it’s probably good. It tasted clean and was recommended to drink by locals who were very health conscious, so i decided to trust. water from every kitchen or bathroom sink I tasted, taste like it came right out of my Berkey filter. Once you leave the house or hotel, there are spickets available to fill water bottles, for free, at many of the parks. I wouldn’t have noticed this one my own if a local hadn’t shown me, and I am so glad he did! When we went to refill our bottles, I thought we were going to some kind of obvious drinking fountain, but it was a little different. They look just like the type of faucet you’re supposed to attach a hose to. I’d never have thought to fill up at one of those, but I did every time I passed one, after I learned this life hack!

An example of a place to fill your water! And random people just hanging out in the park at sunset.

People Hang Out Outside
My favorite part of Europe was being able to go for a walk in a park or just take a seat somewhere outside, knowing i would have interaction with other people. Sadly, in my experience in the USA, this is mostly common in the hood. You see lots of people outside in the hood. But once you’re out of the hood, people don’t really hang out, outside, without intention. Yes, we go outside to go to the beach or we go outside to have a garage sale, but do we go outside just to go outside? I know I don’t often. Do we go to the park just to enjoy a picnic or fresh air or a bottle of wine or a sunset? Not often enough. I loved that part of Europe. The constant immersion in people and vitamin D. Now, obviously just sitting outside isn’t really going to make a person healthier, but the vitamin D and the fresh air will. I have no way to measure the result of this lifestyle difference on their life expectancy, but it truly stood out to me that people spend more time outside and i would hypothesize that it’s not only good for the body, but for the soul.

Fresh Squeezed OJ
As a Floridian, I am ashamed to announce that fresh squeezed orange juice is easier to get in France than Florida. Here we have machines to fresh squeeze for us at Whole Foods and other specialty stores. In France they have them EVERYWHERE. Whether it was the only grocery store we had access to in the French country-side or the grocer in the middle of Paris, there was always fresh squeezed OJ for sale. And remember how 12oz of soda was costs nearly $4? It’s the same price for a LITER of 100% natural juice, squeezed in front of your face. This is how it should be.

SO fresh and delicious and cheap!

The average person’s lifestyle in France and Netherlands is just so much more active and healthy than anywhere I’ve ever lived in the United States. People don’t have to carve out an hour to go to the gym; they’re getting cardio just getting to and from work every day. They don’t have to burn so many extra calories because they’re not eating so much crap food. They’re an example of some of the habits we should embrace when making a lifestyle change.

I spent 26 days on vacation and only gained 1.6lbs. I didn’t meal plan, I didn’t meal prep, and I didn’t visit a gym even once. The second half of my vacation was spent in my home state, Massachusetts, and I will absolutely own up to binge eating nachos and drinking more in a week than I probably ever have in a 3 month period. I didn’t walk anywhere and my lifestyle was much more reflective of the average person on vacation. I am willing to bet I actually LOST weight (even while eating croissants) in Europe, and just gained it back plus 1.6 during my time in Massachusetts. I am planning to visit for about 2 months next summer and I cannot wait to see the difference the lifestyle makes in my body and mind when implemented for an extended period.

Don’t worry, I’ll share! 🙂

In the meantime I am getting back on track here in the states and holding myself accountable with a DietBet. Check it out or join us here– game starts September 4th!