Like their counterparts in other first-world countries, French people know about the health benefits of exercise. And French culture has emphasized, even worshipped, good looks (which these days translates to “fit and trim”).
So it’s surprising that the French avoid fitness centers as vigorously as factory-produced croissants.
But they do. According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, just 5.4% of French people were members of a fitness club in 2008. That’s substantially less than their counterparts in Italy (9.5%), the UK (11.9%) and Spain (16.6%).
“It appears that more people are sitting in cafes smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee than working out … the French don’t see fitness as a lifestyle,” American-born fitness consultant Fred Hoffman told MSNBC. Hoffman has lived in Paris for 2 decades.
The only part of the fitness market that is growing in France is the one for cut-rate, no-frills facilities. “It’s a lot simpler just to open a shoebox and throw in some machines,” explained Michel Parada, who directs operations for Fitness First in France.
However, Hoffman doubts these facilities will be able to sustain themselves, as the French folks who do join fitness centres aren’t savvy about work-out regimes and typically require a personal trainer to carry out a safe, effective work-out.
The problem, it seems, is that working-out has an image problem in France. Celebrities in particular seem to shun sweaty workouts, at least in public. And it’s unlikely that this will change even if the government began promoting fitness.
That became clear in 2007, when President Nicolas Sarkozy was observed jogging in the streets of Paris after his election. “I would rather see the president in his suit than in his sweat,” philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said at the time.