Do The French Really Have The Healthiest And Most Enviable Lifestyle Habits?

France’s number one website for English speakers, Inspirelle, interviewed me about wellbeing, life in France, and why I promote the French lifestyle to our readers.  Enjoy!

Portraits by Carine Duflos

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How many women out there would love to get fit? Eat healthy; exercise regularly. How many of us are too busy caring for our families, juggling work or can’t find the time to look after our own bodies? Rebeca Plantier is a 40+ mother of three who says make time for yourself. Her inspiring blog, Fit to Inspire, and her popular e-book on Lessons from France: Eating, Fitness, Family will motivate you to achieve greater fitness and well-being.

Rebeca has created an online community of women who share their best exercise tips, healthy recipes and personal experiences to inspire women of all ages, sizes and shapes to get into shape. From her home in Annecy, France, Rebeca explains how an adopted French lifestyle has lead to a healthier, happier life.

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Rebeca, you have lived on four continents but you promote the French way of life. When it comes to wellness, do the French really have the healthiest and most enviable lifestyle habits?

I think you can find healthy lifestyles all over the world (Google “Blue zones” for instance). But for me, I truly believe that eating clean, exercising daily without overdoing it and being moderate where treats are concerned is an amazing compromise between being healthy and enjoying life! The French would NEVER sacrifice pleasure, and yet they manage to stay slim, be healthy and enjoy life (champagne, full-fat cheese and chocolate CAN be a part of a healthy lifestyle). Who would NOT want to join that bandwagon?

Why do you think there are less obese people in France than in North America or England? Are they eating less and working out more?

Adult and childhood obesity and morbid obesity are rare in France compared to North America. You only have to spend one day in France to realize that you have probably not run across many overweight people, even less obese ones. A major eye opener for me was seeing the children at the local elementary school. Out of several hundred kids, you might see one or two who are not totally slim (maybe a few pounds to lose, but not seriously overweight let alone obese).

AD-les-Quai-ActivityJoggers along the Seine River in Paris © Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE

There are four main reasons, in my view, that the French are not normally overweight:

1) The French eat much less processed food on a daily/weekly basis.

2) In France there are set meal times that are respected, and people do not snack all day long. They sit down for their meals, eat a substantial amount of real food and that’s it until the next meal time.

3) The French do not drink their calories. Huge milky coffee concoctions, soda, sugary sports drinks, fruit smoothies and more are not the norm. The French drink water or wine at mealtimes, and do not walk around town or do their errands with anything to eat or drink in their hands.

4) Exercise is built into the day in France whether it is walking in the city, taking the stairs or light exercise. 24-hour gyms are practically non-existent in France, because being active is the norm.

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In your E-book, “Lessons From France: Eating, Fitness, Family”, is being fit a family affair involving food in French homes?

Yes, definitely well-being is a family affair. I have three children at home, and on the weekends, together with my husband, we do what the French do – go ski as a family, hike, swim, cycle, play tennis whatever is appropriate for the season. We don’t live in Paris anymore, but when we did, we would walk to the museums or parks, and family fitness was more about playing at the local playgrounds when the kids were younger. Fitness and well-being as a family does not have to be complicated at all… it’s about doing whatever you enjoy.

During the week we stay fit by walking or cycling the kids to school, and making sure dinner is always a home cooked meal that includes lots of veggies. Not complicated!

What inspired you to create an online community for women to become fit no matter what their age or size?

After I turned 40, was done giving birth, and decided to get back into the workforce after some time off. I wanted to do something that would inspire women to greater well-being. I found that the 40+ age group of women was somewhat underrepresented in all ways in the world, and yet we are technically the age group of women with real power in so many senses. We have massive influence in terms of our families in every way: purchasing power, the work force, setting examples for the next generation of women. We are an amazing force to reckon with.

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YET, I really feel that women in our age group are doing so much for others and need to reclaim back time for ourselves to be healthier, feel better about ourselves, gain more confidence and just be stronger, happier individuals. I obviously speak from personal experience, but I think taking time for ourselves, by ourselves or with other positive women around us is TOTALLY essential to well-being. We cannot continue to give so much and not take in return.

“Fit to Inspire for me was a way of reminding women that we are important and our well-being (whether fitness, nutrition, or taking time out) is not a luxury, but a necessity. You cannot be an amazing positive influence on others if you don’t take care of yourself first.”

Women are awesome and I want to do my bit in the world to make more women feel more awesome more often! Voila!

Some of us, hélas, feel it’s hard to find time to exercise. With children, work and the household, what advice do you have for busy women who dream of getting fit?

I think fitness and good nutrition are a matter of priority and organizing your time. Anyone on planet Earth (bar extreme circumstances) has the time for well-being if you plan in advance. My preferred method: waking up early to do a simple 30-minute DVD before anyone else is up in the house. Then, as an added bonus during the day or the week I get in some walking, swimming, hiking, whatever fits in. I can usually find time every day for at least some extra walking.

In terms of nutrition, which is as important, it’s a matter of knowing what and where you’re going to eat in advance. I’m a HUGE fan of meal planning for the week ahead, and doing some meal prepping once a week (an extra hour or two on Sundays to get some of the cooking done for the week) to make it easy to stick to healthy food during the week. 

As with so many things in life, it’s all about organizing your time! Just about anyone can wake up half an hour earlier to get in some exercise.

Do you think it is harder for women who have weight gain from pregnancy or menopause to lose those extra pounds?

I have gone through three pregnancies, but not yet menopause, so I can’t comment on that. However, I know from experience that losing weight (I gained 60 pounds with one of my pregnancies, so feel somewhat qualified to comment on this) is mostly about eating right, not necessarily trying to spend two hours exercising every day. I am a true believer in going for the long haul – getting healthy by eating clean foods in the long term, not by a drastic diet for a month or two. I’ve tried everything under the sun, and I subscribe totally to how the French lose weight post baby: they eat clean (particularly heavy on the vegetables and water intake) in moderate amounts, and make sure to move during the day. It is NOT rocket science!

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What can we learn from Fit to Inspire?

Hopefully you can learn many practical things from how to plan a menu and food prep to how to organize your life, do a proper squat, incorporate fitness into your every day life, eat and exercise in moderation and learn to enjoy life while being healthy!

I also hope that women can learn that being healthy is NOT a punishment, but an amazing way to live life and feel great. We as women should learn to lean on other women for inspiration to feel great.

Fit to Inspire started originally with me and my amazing group of core girlfriends who would get together once or twice a year in different locations around the globe. What did we do? Lots of walking, hiking and outdoor activities. Usually a bit of pampering too. Lots of eating healthy food. A bit of wine. A bit of dessert. Excessive laughter. Supporting one another through the good and the bad (births, deaths, relationship successes and failures, career highs and lows, weight gain, kid issues and everything in between). In one long weekend, we would inspire one another to go back to regular life a bit healthier, a bit happier and definitely not alone. I want all women to experience this type of inspiration!

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You just returned to France after spending a year in the States in a house swap. What was that like uprooting your family and living a year abroad in someone else’s home?

I hadn’t lived in the US in almost 20 years and it was totally fabulous! Americans are SO positive, inspiring and friendly in a way that doesn’t exist in France. I loved every second of it! In the US, your imagination is your limit – Americans encourage taking risks, thinking out of the box, getting out of the mold, being creative and different and trying new things that have never been done before, challenging the status quo. This is pretty polar opposite to the French way of living and definitely how they teach in the schools. So it was just AMAZING and fabulous for me and the kids to be exposed to this!

Did you fall back into the American way of eating and living, or did you bring your adopted French habits with you to America?

The kids were pretty stark reminders of the French way of living when we were in the US. They would always come home to sit down at the table for their snack; thought eating dinner before 7pm was way too early; were totally surprised that during any given school week they were treated to cupcakes, candy, sports drinks, and other things that just don’t exist in their French life. Taking their lunch to school was a novelty too… It’s not to say one way is good and the other is bad. I really dislike comparing different locations like that. It was just a totally different experience!

Good habits begin at a young age, n’est ce pas? What should we be teaching our children so they grow up with healthy food and eating habits?

To me this is simple as I see it around me every day. Eat as a family every day. Sit down to eat always, whether it is a snack or a full meal. Keep set mealtimes and stick to them. Vegetables and fruits are not optional – they should start as soon as you stop breastfeeding/bottle feeding your child. Real, not processed food. Get rid of the sugary drinks totally. Activity every week as a family. I also think it’s important that parents lead as examples: kids are watching and imitating us even when we don’t think they are!

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What inspires you to stay fit Rebeca? Will you describe ways you stay active and healthy?

My only inspiration to stay fit is the way it makes me feel. More than keeping my weight in check or trying to age gracefully, moving and eating mostly healthy food makes me feel good.

“And when I feel good, I am a better mother, a better wife, a better friend, and much more productive at work.”

So to me it’s a no-brainer. It’s not about an eating plan or a fitness schedule; it’s about feeling great on a daily basis. Life can sometimes be tough, at least a roller coaster ride. Why make it any tougher by feeling unhealthy to begin with?

I stay active by starting out my day with a 30-minute DVD always. I try to stick to this no matter what, even on weekends and vacation. It makes me feel good. Then depending on the day/season of the year I make time for something I love to do: walking, hiking, swimming, cycling, or tennis… Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. I go with the flow. I am also a serious believer in sleeping at least 7-8 hours a night uninterrupted. Sleep is possibly the most underrated wellbeing element around. We should all work hard and try to be disciplined about getting enough sleep!

On the eating front, I find it’s easy to stick to healthy nutrition by eating a relatively similar breakfast and lunch every day and keeping dinners varied. I’m not perfect by any means on this, but I do make it my priority to try to stick to healthy foods that make me feel great! And because I love sweets and love to bake, I think a treat or two every week is a good thing. It’s all about moderation

INSPIRELLE is an online magazine and community which inspires, connects and empowers internationally-minded women in and around Paris, whether they are newcomers, natives or just passing through. 

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