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The Skinny-Fat Paradox

October 2010

By Stephanie Wells, Paris

How do the French stay so thin? The answer is: they don’t. Steady yourselves Francophiles – the French are fat. This doesn’t mean that they are generally obese or even chubby. On the contrary. The French, by and large (excuse the pun), are quite slender. Paris-based fitness trainer Iain Kevin Waite describes the general French mindset as “thin is fit”. Waite estimates that the French are five to ten years behind the North American status quo in terms of physical fitness. This means that behind their enviable figures, the French are out of shape.

Smoke Signals

Even in a highly change-resistant culture, like France’s, there are signs that change is in the air. Notably, smoking has plummeted since the 2007 ban against cigarette smoking in public places, including bars, government offices and discotheques. This means that today I can emerge from a cafe without smelling like the Marlboro man.

Vélib-It To Bélieve It

The smoking ban overlapped with a new addition to the already-superb French transportation system: the launch of Vélib. All of the Parisians that I surveyed immediately gasped - “Mon secret? C’est le Vélib!” The citywide bicycle program rents out 20,000 bikes, 24/7, from over 1,600 stations for only one Euro per hour. Parisians are in love with the system and now cycle for any reason including weekend jaunts, riding to bars, and commuting. Whizzing down Paris’ tree-lined avenues in autumn it’s easy to understand Vélib’s popularity.

Swedes Invade France

La Gym Suédoise, or The Swedish Gym, is also changing Gallic attitudes towards working out. The concept is simple. For an annual fee of 70 to 225 euros, La Gym Suédoise offers one aerobic class to all, multiple times a day in various locations throughout the city. Let me preface by divulging that in general, the French love doing activities in unison. No joke. Whether it’s clapping and chanting for the crowd-favorite to win La Nouvelle Star (the French American Idol) or coordinated cheering during Paris-Saint-Germain soccer matches, the idea of collective participation is omnipresent in French culture. The word “solidarity” gets thrown around a lot here.

This explains why La Gym Suédoise is a hit among the French. It offers an hour-long, non-stop, full body exercise routine including stretching, weights, cardio, circuit training, and cool down. With 58 locations in Paris alone, the Swedish invasion is making my French friends feel the burn.

Hammam It Up

It might be surprising to some, but an essential tool in the Parisian woman’s beauty regime is a regular trip to the hammam. France’s long relationship with North Africa introduced the hammam a generation ago. Women of all ages visit their favorite hammam for a vigorous head-to-toe exfoliation and scented oil massage. There are slicker versions, but the undeniable favorite is at La Grande Mosquée de Paris in the Latin Quarter - an oasis of calm in the city. The hammam is relatively inexpensive (15 euros), and includes access to the steam bath, “gommage” (vigorous exfoliation), massage, mint tea, and dips into the hot and cold baths.

Le Détox

The daily Parisian nutritional pyramid usually consists of grainy espresso, bread, dairy and wine. After a couple hundred years of this, dietary detoxification becomes necessary. Detox menus are popping up from the Ritz Hotel to market cafés. Whereas the latter proffers platters of green salads and salmon, the Ritz Hotel offers a luxury package of a four-night stay, complete with healthy quinoa, green tea, and poolside slimming treatments.
The new Hôtel Gabriel in the Marais touts a complete wellness experience. The self-labeled “first detox hotel in Paris” features a small spa equipped with only organic products and soundproof guest rooms with illuminated walls in lieu of overhead lights.

Le Campanier

Belatedly jumping on the organic bus, Parisians are signing up for the CSA Le Campanier. The brown bag service delivers a selection of organic seasonal produce to the subscriber’s doorstep weekly or bi-weekly for only 8-12 euros. The appeal? Efficient, très trendy, fresh and cheap without having to brave the crowded weekend markets.

It’s no secret that France has among the best health care systems and most medicated populations in the world. Waite says that this is an example of Parisians’ focus on staying skinny, yet ambivalence concerning physical fitness. “Detoxing” in Paris is less rigorous and gut-shedding than it would be in, say, California.

The approach is more about inner peace and relaxation, minus the nuisance of perspiration, than it is about colonics and looking beefy. Yet, with bike transport cheaper and cleaner than the métro, fresh veggies on the doorstep, and even biodynamic wines becoming trendy, the skeptical Parisian is hopping on a bike and ever so cautiously broadening the definitions of santé and bien-être (health and well-being).

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