Americans can tend to have an “all or nothing” mentality with regard to diet and exercise. Eat only one food group and not another. Exercise like a body builder or be a couch potato. The French have much more of a sense of balance, allowing them to enjoy things without being defined by them.
The typical French woman does not go a gym – why would you voluntarily do anything so unpleasant? (Unless of course she enjoys going to the gym.) She does exercise, in moderation and according to her mood and interests. But primarily the French woman leads an active life.
Once upon a time, I was an exercise fanatic. I did P90X, Y and Z. I logged my weekly miles and did everything from high weight, low reps to low weight, high reps. Now, in the true spirit of a French woman, I do what I want to do and it all works out.
As with everything in life, the French woman takes a gentle approach to exercise. If she wants to run or play tennis, great! If she wants to go to a gym, prendre plaisir. But mainly the French woman engages in activity as a way of life.
On our last trip to Paris, my husband and I averaged about 5-6 miles per day of walking. We ate anything we wanted – bread, wine, desserts (why not – we were on vacation in Paris!) But at the end of the vacation our weight was unchanged and, if anything, clothes fit a little better from all the activity.
Home for me is Los Angeles, and like many American cities, it was not designed for walking as a way of life; it is more of a network of communities which, like drops of mercury, have spread and connected into one big shiny blob. For most people, work is not within walking or biking distance and there is no baker, butcher and produce market just down the street. Coupled with that, you are not pulled down the street from one architectural masterpiece to the other. Hence, walking is more of a deliberate activity.
Early this year I read an article which talked about a woman who, after fits and starts of exercising (like myself), made a resolution to do 15 minutes of exercise every day. If she wanted to do more after that, fine. And so I thought well, heck, I can do that. And to my surprise, after about six weeks, the definition in my arms and legs that I had worked for, and then not, then worked for, and then not, started to appear. And I realized, after many times of vowing to go “hard core” on exercise and then doing nothing because I didn’t have the time or motivation to do everything, that it isn’t so much what you do, it’s that you do.
The simple answer is, do what you enjoy, that exerts your body, and that you can and will do consistently.
The French woman knows that exercise is an equalizer to certain other indulgences, and incorporates this into her life as naturally as drying off after a shower.
If you don’t know where to start, I again recommend Pinterest. Go to your Pinterest account which you set up in my blog Discovering Your Personal Style (if you didn’t have one already), and type in the word Fitness (or tighten arms, thighs, etc.). There you will find a huge assortment of short workout routines that focus of various parts of the body, and which you can switch up often for variety.
I’ll give you an idea of how I spend my fifteen minutes, to help get you started –
I have always enjoyed using weights, and like feeling my muscles work. I have sets of 5, 8 and 10 pound weights to use depending on the body part I’m working (some groups of muscles are designed to lift more weight than others.) How heavy should the weight be for each exercise? Basically for a woman looking to stay toned, whatever you can lift for about 15-20 repetitions, maintaining good form and feeling at the end that you couldn’t do any more. If after 15 reps you feel like you could go on forever, the weight is too light. If you can only get to 8 or 10, the weight is too heavy. And if the weight you’ve been using starts feeling light, pat yourself on the back and grab a heavier weight.
I like to exercise in the early morning while watching some news and getting a little download on world events, killing two birds with one dumbbell. I work upper body and lower body on alternating days.
For upper body, I usually do 2 – 3 sets (15-20 reps 2 or 3 times with a break in between) of some combination of lateral raises, triceps extensions, bent-over flies, biceps curls and overhead shoulder presses. I will do additional/different exercises if I’m so inclined or am watching a particularly interesting story.
For lower body, I do a couple of sets of about 30 each of squats, sumo squats, lunges, and floor work (side leg lift, inner thigh leg lift, etc.) When using your own body weight instead of dumbells, the rule changes from 15-20 reps to keep going until you can’t go no mo’.
And I walk wherever possible. If the destination is only a mile or so away and time allows, I will walk (often with heels in my bag to be worn upon arrival). Soon, your concept of what is “too far to walk” dramatically changes. On the weekends, my husband and I try to treat ourselves to a long walk somewhere pretty, followed by a well-deserved breakfast.
If weights aren’t your thing, no problem. Do what you enjoy – walking, gardening, biking. Just move deliberately and consistently.
No Pain, No Gain?
Depends on your definition of pain. I don’t believe you ever must feel pain, but you should feel something. Walking should be comfortably fast-paced and weights should be a bit uncomfortably heavy. If it feels like you’re doing nothing, guess what? Yup.
If you’ve strayed a bit from the ideal, I know it can seem daunting to get started. The good news is, the more improvement there is to be gained, the sooner you start to see a change.
By doing what you enjoy and enjoying what you do, anyone has the time to stay fit, active and French.