Hate the Gym? How Very French.

Photo: Andrew French

Bestselling author Mireille Guiliano offers seven ways to stay fit — no StairMaster required!

From the 15th floor windows of my New York City apartment, I have a clear view of a big and many windowed “health center,” (aka a four-story gym complex). Early in the morning and late at night, I watch active women flock indoors for an artificial routine of treadmills, exercise bikes and medieval torture devices.

It is a sign of the times — but also our American culture — that many women seem to have only two modes: sitting or spinning. They’re either avoiding even the slightest heart rate increase (like those women in my apartment building who take the elevator to the second floor) or they’re sentencing themselves to hours at the gym as punishment for their indulgences throughout the day. So often I see the begrudging look on women’s faces and hear the phrase, “I don’t want to go to the gym, but I have to.” Pourquoi? If you are eating mindfully, and eating the correct portion sizes, you don’t have to torture yourself on those metal contraptions or run a marathon to stay trim. French women reject the notion of “no pain, no gain,” opting for a more pleasurable notion of mild, sustained exertion. We prefer all-day movement — what I like to call “the slow burn” — and we practice it as second nature instead of attacking it like boot camp.

Exercise requires the same sense of balance we require in other aspects of our life. We know by now that most dieting has a yo-yo effect and fails; we must recognize that too little and too much exercise meet the same fate. Overexertion at the gym may actually sabotage your weight loss goals. Too many women I know go overboard on the treadmill, and then eat more as either mental or hunger compensation. Eating a protein bar loaded with chemicals and calories just to burn them off seems silly. Or is it just to moi? The overheated workout also often leads to defeatism (I give up!). My window survey confirms those overcrowded gyms in January are half as crowded in February and March. Those New Year’s resolutions may provide us with the motivation, but after a few weeks of killing ourselves on the elliptical, we burn out.

French women see exertion as an integral part of the day. I encourage you to look at everyday movement (what you do in street clothes, not spandex) as essential to your overall wellness, and not to see exertion as an assigned task. Here are a few French tips on how to stay fit without ever setting foot in la gym.

1) Don’t save your steps, multiply them! Instead of driving your car around in circles to find a close spot, purposely park far away and walk the couple extra feet. Do you know burning a mere 50 extra calories a day equates to five pounds a year?! Burn those calories creatively. Think thrice about using interoffice mail; walk that memo to your coworker’s office. Take an extra few laps around the block at lunchtime, take the long way home when walking your dog at night.

2) Incorporate simple resistance movements into your daily routine. Use your own body weight as resistance wherever possible. Isometric exercises, discreet but effective, are very French. This can be done before you even leave the house in the morning. For example, while waiting in traffic or on the subway, contract your abs for 12 seconds with your back pressed against the seat (it’s better for you than road rage). When reading a magazine at home, try sitting on the floor with your legs stretched and apart in a V and your hands on each side; this is a great stretch for your inner thigh muscles.

3) Take care of your core. I’m a firm believer that we need to attend to our abdominals as we age. These are the muscles that hold all our vital organs in place; they support good posture and a healthy spine, something we must take care of as we get older. Do a few situps as part of a little stretch/exercise/yoga routine in the morning — it’s never too early or too late to start this ritual.

4) Acquaint yourself with small to moderate free weights (3-5 lbs.), especially if you’re over 40. A bit of extremely simple resistance training is an antidote to hours spent on gym machines. Short but focused movement with small weights is a good way to preserve upper body tone and bone density and supplement the cardiovascular benefits of an active lifestyle. A little goes a long way — and that benefit only increases as you age. So don’t let extremism overtake you.

5) Get en vélo. Americans tend to see bicycling as recreation — and often either as a child’s pastime or a hobby for only the most serious triathletes. But French and European women see cycling as a mode of transportation. I encourage those who can bike to work or shopping to do so. One of my pleasures in Provence is taking my bike to run errands. Riding my bike is one of my favorite warm weather routines — and is, of course, environmentally clean and efficient. So I’m happy to see bikes and bike lanes increasing in New York and other cities. Cycling has well-known health benefits: it’s a low-impact, mild aerobic exercise that strengthens your heart and lungs; it tones the large (read: fat-burning) muscle groups; it keeps joints, tendons and ligaments flexible; it builds stamina; and it’s generally fun, reducing stress and boosting your mood. And the view from a real bicycle ride beats the view from a stationary bike in a white-walled gym any day of the week.

6) Yoga. If there was ever a fountain of youth, it might be the practice of yoga. Not only does it reduce stress, improve your posture and help to develop longer, leaner limbs, but it also speeds up your metabolism, works nearly every muscle group and promotes an overall bodily wellness that no other sport or class can compete with. I practice yoga religiously, usually in the comfort of my own home. I am no yogi; I do not spend hours upon end on my head — I simply have a handful of mastered poses and movements that make me feel good and keep me limber and trim. Most women can find 20-30 minutes a day to practice if they make it a priority. No equipment necessary.

7) Vive l’escalier! Taking the stairs whenever possible is one of the main tenets of my philosophy. It always astounds me to see people who live no higher than the fourth floor and with nothing more to carry than themselves taking the elevator. In France, walking up and down stairs is a perfunctory part of our day. We rarely spend an hour stair climbing, but you should know that climbing stairs burns a stunning 1100 calories per hour. Climbing a couple flights a day will surely go a long way. A few times a week I choose to walk up the 15 flights of stairs to my apartment for some healthy fun — and yes, I do enjoy it.

In the end, remember that those who overexert themselves inevitably burn out. But those who know how to stay fit while enjoying life come out ahead, mentally and physically.

The former CEO of Champagne Veuve Cliquot, Mireille Guiliano is the bestselling author of French Women Don’t Get Fat. Her latest book is The French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook. Visit her at mireilleguiliano.com.

6 Responses so far.

  1. avatar phyllis Doyle Pepe says:

    Excellent advice, however, I would like to remind Mireille that many of us American women follow these regimes and forgo the gym set. Walking (a mile or two a day) is one of the best, cheapest, and most enjoyable exercises and it’s free, like bicycle riding. I think why some of Mireille’s really good pieces are a little off putting is her “French” thing. Having to deal politically with the great divide, some of us don’t appreciate more of the same in comparisons of French women and American.

  2. avatar Maggie W says:

    French this, French that. 

    In all probability, women in many countries enjoy a walk or bicycle ride if they have the luxury of down time.  Gyms in the USA are often busy late at night when women get off work or come from a late class.   Many of my friends love the gym and work with a trainer.  It’s  also safer than many city streets and free from pollution.  If I had a daughter, I would prefer she go to a gym rather than strike out on a trail alone.

    There are good reminders in the article.  It is difficult for most women to get in those 10,000 steps a day, but every little effort can make a difference.  I would add that it helps to be a part of a group.  I have participated in three marathons and always looked forward to my days with my training group. 

  3. avatar Lila says:

    In the DC area parking is at a premium just about everywhere, yet still there are those who will circle for 20 minutes looking for the one spot right next to the store. What a waste of time. Walking the extra distance is actually faster, not any more difficult, and it does have the added benefit of getting your body moving.

    But… parking at the Pentagon is really ridiculous. I believe most folks almost get their 10,000 steps just getting from their car into the building, and back. When I was asked where I parked, I would answer, “Delaware,” and it seemed not too far off the mark. Then there is the building itself – miles of corridors. Add more steps to get from the entrances to your office.

    I do see some brave (insane?) souls biking around this area, but I would not risk it on these roads, and bike trails are sort of limited. Looking forward to one day moving to a quieter, gentler community where we can dust off the city bikes we rode so much when we lived in Frankfurt, Germany. We even put baskets and saddlebags on them and did our shopping that way. Very nice.

  4. avatar D C says:

    My company did a 6 week 10-K a day challenge from Valentine’s day to end of March.  I was a team captain, so there was no slacking.  Luckily, I have a boss who is very fitness concious, so didn’t mind if I stepped away from my desk mid-morning to do a quick walk, and then again at lunch time for a longer one.  Most days I had my 10K before leaving for the day.  My family is taking a vacation to Washington DC in July, and I have kept up the walking (not quite as much, but at least 8K a day) to make sure I’m up for the vacation challenge.  The other day I parked far from the door at the grocery, and when I got home, realized I had lost my office badge.  Can’t get in the door, can’t log onto the computer — it was a big deal.  I had made 3 stops that day on the way home, and ended up finding the badge right next to where I had parked at the edge of the lot at the grocery.  NOBODY parks out there… so the badge was unscathed.  Nice perk for getting your daily steps in!

  5. avatar pandora bracelets says:

    Riding bicycle canhelp us exercise our health. It is to us. I have kept walking for more than 30 minutes everyday to keep healthy.

  6. avatar Ann Hipson says:

    I think the difference is that American women see exercise as a discrete activity in their lives–they take a block of time to go to the gym, walk two miles, bike a trail and so on. Many Europeans see exercise as just a part of every day life–they walk to the store, take the stairs instead of the elevator, park at the edge of the parking lot where it’s easier to get out rather than jam up near the door, and so on. Actually, this is how we Americans used to live, too. I remember walking to the library with my father on Saturdays when my mother would use the car to stock up on groceries for six people. We didn’t think anything about it. We walked to the corner store when we needed bread. If we went “downtown”, we walked or if we drove, parked and then walked because parking was on the street and limited.

    It is very easy when exercise is a separate discrete activity to blow it off. It is harder when it is naturally incorporated in our lives.