What it Means to Move Like a French Woman

Even in Exercise, Start with Pleasure

The great writer Colette was the first French woman to work out in the American sense. She would rise every morning and hit the gym, a collection of primitive contraptions she even traveled with. To most French women, however, the idea holds little appeal. For while exerting oneself physically is completely essential to Montaigne’s ideal of the healthy mind in a healthy body, dressing to break a sweat doesn’t go with being French. Partly, it all seems such a great, joyless effort: cutting two hours out of the precious day—the travel, changing, learning to use machines, waiting to use them, showering, drying your hair, etc. “And you have to pay for it!” as my friend Sylvie snickers. So while you will surely find all the latest apparatuses in a good French hotel, know that they are there as a grudging concession to tourists and business people. It’s odd for a French woman to use them or to be seen jogging in the Luxembourg Gardens or the Tuileries.

Do what you want to do

Odd, but charming, too, because what French women do, they do out of their own desires. You see, we are all, to the core, individualistes invétérées (stubborn individualists), and so long as you are doing your own thing, it’s fine. Some, though not many, French women enjoy sport: tennis and swimming are both fun and excellent for you. Bon. If your kick is running in the park, we say amuse-toi bien. It’s only the view of the workout as mandatory sentence that rubs us the wrong way. It’s the American rule of “no pain, no gain” that we reject.

Go faster, work harder, sweat more, again…yawn

A disproportionate amount of exercise, as some American women practice, may turn out to load the deck against your weight loss goals. While offering little or no health benefit compared with milder exertion, the over-heated workout may in fact lead to defeatism (“I give up!”), even to heartier eating. Indeed, too many women I know exercise so that they end up with oversize appetites just to refuel their bodies. They become like (gym) rats on a treadmill. It’s obvious that someone is plotting against them: just look at all the offender foods stocked in gym cafés, awaiting these unsuspecting women after their two-hour session: sugary fruit juices, half-pound muffins, high-protein bars. You can cancel out your whole routine before even paying for your parking! French women know any regimen you can’t maintain for life is bound to fail you, just as they know that boredom, not food, is the enemy.

American women seem to have two modes: sitting or spinning. French women prefer the gentler, more regular varieties of all-day movement—”the slow burn” in American terms. And as you might expect, our approach, true to Cartesian principles, demands that you use your mind as you use your body. Mindless exercise is almost as bad as mindless eating. We strive to diversify the physical movement in our lives, and practice it as second nature. And we cultivate awareness as we go.

French women see exertion as an integral part of the day. I encourage you to look at every-day movement, what you do in street clothes, as essential to your overall wellness, and not to see exertion as something assigned to the gym. It may mean extra steps in the yard, or not using interoffice mail. Or it may mean riding your bike to work. The point is to practice as much physical exertion for as many moments of the day as you can manage. This is the surest way to overcome the mental hurdle which the idea of regular exercise presents to some of us. Reap the benefits without the bother. If you believe working at your desk leaves you no time for such things, you should realize that stress and fatigue in modern life typically have more to do with a lack of exertion than with too much.