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Fitness With A French Twist

The French often participate in sports and other nontraditional “fitness” activities without joining a health club, notes Fred Hoffman, MEd, 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, director of International Services for the Club & Spa Synergy Group and fitness consultant for women’s marketing at Reebok France. “Hiking, walking and Nordic walking are popular, and many people ride bicycles,” he says. “Boxing, judo, karate and other martial arts are extremely popular for children, teenagers and young adults. For families who can afford it, tennis and racquet sports are activities of choice.”

Hoffman notes that there is something unique in France: nonprofit associations that offer sports and fitness activities. “They are often sponsored by the local government and are usually low cost,” he says. “Many activities are held in local municipal gyms or activity centers.”

In most health clubs, prechoreographed group fitness programs—such as BodyPump™ and BodyVive™—are popular. Participants still enjoy stretching classes and strength programs; for example, muscle-sculpting and abs classes. Indoor cycling is popular in some clubs, and Zumba® just started and is generating interest. Yoga and Pilates have gained ground but are often found in smaller studios rather than gyms. Personal training is also popular, but mainly in large cities (especially Paris).

“One phenomenon that has just exploded here is whole-body vibration (WBV) machines,” says Hoffman. “Spas, weight loss clinics, some beauty salons, clubs and small personal training studios are offering sessions.”

Hoffman is excited about Vélib, a self-service “bike hire” system available in Paris and several other cities in France. “Multiple pickup and drop-off locations allow you to pick up your bike from one service point and drop it off at another,” he says. “You can even ‘rent’ a bike for free if you use it for 30 minutes or less.”

What is not popular in France? Boot camp classes! “In general, the French are not a fitness-based culture, so the idea of working out that hard is not inviting,” he says.

“The French have embraced a lot of bad habits from the U.S., such as eating junk food, watching TV and not exercising,” says Hoffman. “Plus, while smoking is no longer allowed inside public buildings, including restaurants and cafés, you still see huge numbers of people smoking outside in front,” says Hoffman. “Government campaigns urge citizens to quit smoking, but the habit is somewhat culturally ingrained.”

How does the government support health and fitness? “It is trying a preventative approach because of the increasing health costs to the state,” he says. “An ongoing national campaign promotes healthy eating and physical activity. The website www.mangerbouger.fr is full of nutrition and exercise information for all ages and populations. In addition, the Sarkozy government has placed the sports ministry under the Ministry of Health, which demonstrates to French citizens the link between physical activity and health.”

In general, why do the French want to exercise? “People in this country are extremely concerned with their looks, so a big motivating factor is aesthetics,” says Hoffman. However, he adds, while a fatalistic approach to life is quite common, exercising for health benefits is becoming more prevalent.

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