Back when Nicolas Sarkozy was the French president, photographers would capture him jogging in a polo shirt with a security detail huffing along at his side. Many credit the former head of state with popularizing “le jogging” in France, where people still devote more energy to eating well and the art of seduction than to working out and dieting. Indeed, the French are the first to joke that their official national pastime is drinking. But while campaigning for office, the current French president, François Hollande, slimmed down noticeably. Perhaps getting stuck with the nickname “Flanby,” lifted from the packaged crème caramel pudding dessert, was his breaking point. Yet unlike Barack and Michelle Obama, whose early morning gym sessions are common knowledge (remember the First Lady happily taking on Ellen DeGeneres in a push-up throwdown?), Hollande never finds his fitness regimen under scrutiny. Does he read morning memos on the recumbent bike while his partner, Valérie Trierweiler, takes private Pilates lessons? No one really cares. Beyond the Élysée Palace, however, the French appear to be upholding Sarkozy’s jogging tradition. On any given morning, particularly on weekends, you can see all sorts of enthusiasts hitting the gravel paths that loop around the impeccably manicured parks of Paris. Whereas New York has its sprawling Central Park, Paris has the considerably smaller Jardin du Luxembourg, Parc Monceau, and Jardin des Tuileries. There’s no sense determining which is most beautiful; if you have easy access to any of them, you’re a lucky duck. Rain or shine — but often rain; it rains here nearly every day — the runners remain a loyal bunch. I know this because, while sidelined from running (a history of stress fractures in my feet), I often go to the Tuileries to do exercises with what’s available, namely trees, benches, and long pathways. Like me, these regulars seem much happier exercising outside, taking in the Eiffel Tower and the lawns and sculpture, than sweating it out on a treadmill while watching the French version of Top Chef. I decided shortly after I arrived here in 2011 that I would not join a gym. For starters, the main chain is called Club Med — yes, the same Club Med known for its generic, all-inclusive, family resorts. It's serviceable but hardly inspires motivation. Then there’s the Equinox equivalent, Usine (as in “factory”). The two locations are well equipped and lit like nightclubs; I have never been past the lobby.
Mostly, though, gyms don’t seem to mesh with French culture.
No one here walks around in gym clothing. Lululemon, like Netflix, has yet to reach Paris. Instead, people run in peacoats and parkas, wearing shorts that offer little more coverage than Speedos. Most curiously, many Parisians will accessorize their head-to-toe spandex with elegantly tied scarves. The firemen (pompiers) are the best dressed in their navy and red track uniforms with fluorescent yellow lettering. Sometimes I do a fancy plank on a bench just to see if I can get their attention. It hasn't worked yet. I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen someone carrying a yoga mat. This is not to suggest that Parisian women aren’t into headstands; the wife of a close friend spends her Saturdays in yoga seminars, and another friend swears by a bilingual Pilates place on the Left Bank called Core Body. I also know an expat who takes ballet. But these activities are done clandestinely: No one is to know that you work for your lithe physique. Incidentally, the only time I have been treated rudely since moving was when I tried to take a Pilates class at a recreation center in my neighborhood. The woman let her students in, sized me up, and said, “Non!” I told her I had taken classes for years in Toronto. She halfheartedly apologized and then shut the door in my face. Soon after, I bought a package of five classes at another location offering Pilates and yoga. The walls were a shade of Evian bottle blue, which made perfect sense once I discovered that the space was underwritten by Danone, corporate parent to the water giant. Diligently, I went four times in a week, but then got sidetracked and returned six weeks later for the final class. The place had closed; paper covered the window where a giant smile logo once beamed forth. Frankly, I don't think there was enough interest. While I get the sense that Parisians are becoming more and more intrigued by fitness, there is still something funny about watching a Parisian jog with intent. Maybe I’m imagining these idiosyncrasies, and to be fair, there are many runners who look like marathon material. I’m referring to the ones who run as if they’re making a pact to themselves that they can still smoke and drink to their heart’s content as long as they squeeze in a half-hour circuit; their stride is wobbly and their cheeks are betterave (beet) red. I'm convinced they would much rather be in bed, sweating à deux. In the warmer weather, I often exchange greetings with an elementary school phys ed teacher who brings his students — eight-year-olds, tops — to the Tuileries. He puts them through running drills before they play football (ahem, soccer) in one of the garden’s open stretches. Once, the teacher commented, “Why would I keep them inside when this is the most beautiful gym in the world?” They might end up being the French fitness buffs of the future — the ones who progress to CrossFit and yogalates. But I think exercising in the Tuileries will leave a lasting impression on them, as it has on me. Except for one thing: I still don’t sport a scarf.