The French and Exercise
Envious Americans have puzzled for years over the mystery of the slenderness of the French, relative to what they consume. The average French person eats three meals a day plus the “apero,” which is wine or spirits at cocktail hour along with, at the very least, peanuts or olives, but often includes things such as sausages, pates and cheeses. Every French meal includes bread. Breakfast tends to be light – a “tartine,” which is a slab of baguette, with butter and jam, maybe a yogurt, and coffee or tea with hot milk. Lunch generally involves an appetizer and a main dish, or a main dish and a dessert and almost always includes at least one glass of wine or beer. Dinner is much the same as lunch but involves a larger quantity of wine and, of course, between the main dish and dessert is the cheese course.
My personal explanation for the slenderness of the French is the degree of balance in their diets. They eat everything under the sun, so they can never feel deprived, but they enjoy them in small quantities. Yes, they eat bread, but butter is usually only served at breakfast. They also drink mineral water next to their wine and, when they start feeling toxic, will cut out the wine for a few days.
Let’s also not forget that Paris is principally a walking city, so regular exercise is a part of Parisian life. And a good thing, too, because the American concept of an exercise program, is anathema to any French person worth their salt.
And, although the average French person drinks a bottle of wine per day, the notion of alcoholism doesn’t resonate, either. AA exists in Paris, but meetings are few and far between. When an individual decides (or his doctor decides) that it’s time to quit drinking, it’s generally accomplished with a minimum of fuss.
Take my friend, Flore. One day, after years of being a party girl, she decided alcohol no longer served her life or her relationship, and she gave it up. Just like that. When I asked her if she had found it difficult, she said not at all, because she’d found something to replace it. She said that the seduction of drinking had been the endorphin response. She loved the combined feeling of relaxation, stimulation and elation that alcohol provided. She enjoyed less the morning-after hangovers and the inevitable fights with her boyfriend, who was a drinker, too.
When I asked if it posed a problem that her guy was still drinking, she said not at all. She enjoyed watching people enjoy themselves and, if they got drunk, it could be very amusing, providing one was a neutral witness. Yes, I insisted, but doesn’t it get annoying? I bartended for years and, without a doubt, the most difficult aspect of the job is that people tend to have the same conversations every day and repeat themselves endlessly within that same conversation. I have left certain jobs and come back a year later as a visitor and been both saddened and amused to listen to the same people having the same conversations they were having the year prior.
Flore insisted that, no, it didn’t bother her that her boyfriend drank and although, yes, he did tend to repeat himself after a certain point in the evening, she forgave him for it. Basically, she had removed alcohol from her own life with no regrets. It was more important to have peace in her relationship. When I asked what the key to her success in abstinence was, she said she had found another way to get the endorphin rush she was addicted to. To my astonishment, she said her replacement for wine was exercise – a very unusual choice for a French person. She told me that she had made going to the gym and working out a regular part of her life. She just loved that endorphin rush. She didn’t need alcohol any more to get her “fix,” because she had exercise. Exercise had become her reason for living. The thought of it got her out of bed in the morning, propelled her through her day and gave her something to look forward to after work. She admitted to being addicted but, of all life’s addictions she asked, wouldn’t I have to agree that there was little to no danger involved in such a dependency?
No argument there, and I must say I was very impressed. I had known this girl for some time and had always considered her a diehard partier. When I suggested that perhaps one day, she would go back to drinking and could, perhaps, integrate it into her life in a more balanced way, she was appalled! No, she insisted. It’s not good for me and I get the endorphin rush from my sports. I love my sports. I live for my sports. Sports are the most important thing in my life. And it’s every bit as good a high as drinking was. I don’t care if I’m addicted.
As I listened to her, visions of a new-and-improved, athletic Flore formed in my mind: Flore in a jogging suit, trotting along the sidewalks of Paris at sunrise; Flore, taking long, daily bike-rides on the “Velib” bicycles, which can be picked up and dropped off at any of the many Velib stands located around the city, for a minor rental fee. I imagined Flore, sweating on a treadmill and panting on a Stairmaster. I saw her doing 40 laps in the pool and determinedly lifting weights.
Somehow, none of these images resonated with me. I had spent a good deal of time with this girl over the years and something didn’t seem quite right. Flore is a French, girly-girl – the kind who always wears make-up, mini-skirts and stiletto heels. Still, there was no reason to disbelieve her and she certainly looked a lot better since she’d quit drinking – her face had lost its bloated quality, and her cheekbones, lips and eyes stood out.
I needed to know more, so I asked her how often she worked out. With no hesitation she said, “Oh, without fail, I exercise every week for a whole hour. Sometimes I do an hour as often as twice a week! And then I go to the Hammam.” For those of you who don’t know, the Hammam is the ritual, Turkish bath. At the Hammam, you sit in the steamroom, and then get rubbed down with a salt or mud scrub by a woman, whose only job is to see that there is not a dead skin cell anywhere to be found on your body. Then you shower, sit in the steamroom again, visit the whirlpool, relax in the sauna, and drink sweetened, mint tea. It’s a fabulous, luxurious experience. On average, a visit to the Hammam takes about 3 hours. Now suddenly, Flore’s exercise program all made sense.