Fitness in France


What are French people’s secrets to staying healthy?

In diet and nutrition, there’s something called the French Paradox: French people seem to eat a lot of butter, oil, fat, drink wine and beers, yet manage to stay thin.

Or as we say in French:

  • Garder la ligne “Guard the line / Keep the line” = Stay thin
  • Être en forme To be in shape / To feel well
  • Le bien-être Well-being

So what’s the secret?

Well, nobody knows, really.
The science behind the obesity epidemic is confused – for instance, even animals are affected, in the wild and in labs, so it’s hard to say it’s about a special lifestyle or culture.

And I can’t tell you that French fitness comes from a superior lifestyle or secret French tips. What I can tell you, however, is that:
French people do have a close relationship to food and exercise, and that’s something you’ll enjoy when you come here.

You can experience it on your visit to France and see how it goes!

Want all the vocabulary of the lesson ?

1) Les repas

Les repas (= meals) are important everyday social events. When it’s possible, we take the time to eat, whether it’s for le déjeuner (= lunch) or le dîner (= dinner), together at a table at the same time.

French people respect la nourriture (= the food.)
We also say la bouffe (= slang for “food”), but don’t use it for any food that someone took time to make – it would be disrespectful.

As you might find in French restaurants or at your friends’ house, we tend to eat in smaller portions, and take more time to savourer (= taste and enjoy our food.)

Culturally, we’re proud of the quality of your products, meat and vegetables.

Extra blog-only vocabulary for French quality food you can buy:

  • La viande (= meat)
  • La viande de qualité (= quality meat)
  • La viande Label Rouge (= meat with the famous Label Rouge certification)
  • La traçabilité (= knowing where your meat comes from, to avoid cheap and (we think) medicine-filled beef from countries with laxer regulations.)
  • Consommer local (= eat local)
  • Les légumes (= vegetables)
  • Les produits locaux (= products that were made nearby)
  • Les légumes de saison (= vegetables that are in season where you live)
  • L’agriculture biologique /Le bio (= organic food)
    → Organic food tends to be seen as “better,” but the comparison is unclear. “Regular” vegetables are very good too in France!
  • Le terroir (= the traditional association of land, products, and cultural know-how. Fuzzy but important concept in France.)
  • L’Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC (= a famous label for high quality products that are made in their area of origin, with local products and respectful practices). It’s called AOP (“protégée”) at the European level. List of French AOC.

Meanwhile, there’s a stigma around la malbouffe (= junk food.) But in real everyday life, French people do eat a lot of that too.

Here’s a 10-minute segment on French public television about “La Malbouffe”

Blog-only speculations and unsourced intuitions:

French people tend to take the time to cook at home, when possible. Les plats cuisinés or les plats préparés (= ready-made meals you buy from the store) are frowned upon. Of course, many people don’t have the time or energy to cook – but our culture of “shorter” working hours at least helps a bit in giving employees time to eat well at home.

For even wilder speculation: France is too small to have “food deserts.” With many caveats, rich and poor people can’t be too far from each other – there’s just not enough land. So the healthy options that cater to middle-class residents will never be too far from more popular neighborhoods. And that probably helps! (Or not, who knows.)

The “gastronomic meal of the French” has been on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List since 2010!

2) Le sport en association

  • Le sport (= sports.)
  • Faire du sport (= exercise)
  • Faire de l’exercice (= exercise, but less common)
  • Jouer au [football, ou autre sport] (= Play [soccer, or another sport])

Exercise is a hobby in France. As for all hobbies, French people tend to join une association, clubs, which are often subsidized – either by the city, or le département, la région, or even the State.

Les associations are the lifeblood of French social life, and a great, great way to make friends when you’re in France. Like:

  • le club de foot (= soccer),
  • la danse classique (= ballet),
  • la danse moderne (= modern dance),
  • le handball (= handball, where the “a” sounds like a French “a”)
  • Le volley (= volleyball)
  • La boxe (= boxing)
  • Le badminton
  • Le rugby…

You can still try la salle de sport (= the gym) if you want to. There are several in any city, and they’re growing. However, I don’t personally know many people who go there regularly. Oh, and by the way, la gym can be a gym, but for me it mainly means “gymnastics” or “aerobics.” So, my mom goes to “la gym” (= aerobics class) weekly – but she doesn’t go to “a gym” where you run on treadmills or lift weights.

It’s much more common to simply courir (= to run.) We also say:

  • Faire du jogging
  • Faire du running (less common, a bit pompous)
  • Faire du footing

Like many anglicisms in French, these are not a good use of English words.

— Le truc en plus —
Funny English comedian Paul Taylor talks about anglicisms a lot more in his show available on YouTube.

I actually used a clip of his to help you practice understanding spoken French:
Click here to learn more: Practice Your Understanding of Fast Spoken French (with Paul Taylor)
— — —

What’s appealing about running is that it’s une activité en plein air (= an open-air activity.) You’ll also find other, more structured programs outside with coaches and clubs, and sometimes for free! Especially in Paris.

Yes, a lot of names for sports come from English, as a lot of them were invented and codified in Victorian Great-Britain. (Same thing with trains!)
Notice that we say la danse classique rather than le ballet. “Le ballet” is also a French word, but we’d rather use it for the company itself, or the actual piece of art on stage.

3) Les déplacements

  • Les déplacements (= everyday travels and trips)
  • Se déplacer (= to move, to change places)
  • Les transports (= transportation)
  • Un trajet (= an everyday trip between two points)

Stay fit by moving your body when moving between places!

France is not as much of a car culture as North America. As a cause and consequence, it’s easier for marcher, to walk.

Of course, you can try la randonnée (= hike) in French mountains and majestic landscapes – that’s also a very popular hobby for French people of all ages.

But walking is also part of your everyday life in France: shop around and buy groceries in le centre piéton, the walkable city center.

Or better yet, rent un vélo (= a bicycle)! There’s a growing number of les pistes cyclables (= bike paths), in Paris for instance, or especially in other cities like Strasbourg or my own city, Grenoble – at the top of the latest ranking list of “Bikable cities”

Bicycles are a convenient means of transportation for short distances – and in a French city, a lot of what you need is often less that a 10-min bike ride away.

Dive deeper into French sports and culture with my other lessons:

And in bonus: How to go to the gym in France (a very old article from back then!)

Click on a link to get to your next step in French culture!

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

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Join the conversation!

    • Bonjour Marlin,
      You can easily find this dish in France as a “rôti de bœuf” with “une sauce” (gravy).
      Bon appétit,
      Comme Une Française Team

  • Pour améliorer votre français tout en faisant de la gymnastique, je vous propose l’émission Gym direct:
    Il y a aussi des épisodes disponibles sur youtube.
    Moi, je fais tous les jours de la gymnastique en regardant ces vidéos depuis six ans et j’ai beaucoup amélioré mon français en ce qui concerne le champ lexical du corps, du mouvement etc.

  • Je pense que tu es une sportive Géraldine.
    Er, I just invented that and I hope that I
    haven’t said the wrong thing ! 😀
    S’entraîner, la randonée, faire du vélo,
    aller nager ~ le bon chemin vers la bonne
    santé. Et quand on devient plus âgé tout
    ça devient de plus en plus important !!
    Allez ……………….

  • Because we do a lot of walking while on vacation in France, we always lose weight despite eating and drinking well and often–hey, it’s a vacation; it’s required activity ;-), right?

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