How the ‘French Approach’ to Health Changed My Wellness Routine and Lowered My Stress Levels

How the ‘French Approach’ to Health Changed My Wellness Routine and Lowered My Stress Levels
How the ‘French Approach’ to Health Changed My Wellness Routine and Lowered My Stress Levels

It’s simple for Americans to idealize life overseas… jetting off to a foreign place and settling into a idyllic existence, distant from the stress-filled commotion of the corporate world in the States. In reality, I idealized it to such an extent that I ventured across the pond myself, golden retriever in tow, to pursue la vie en rose in Paris.

Relocating to a new country has brought its fair share of obstacles—visa paperwork, legal formalities, the dreaded dossier (extensive paperwork required for renting) and apartment hunting—but living in the City of Light also comes with remarkable advantages and lifestyle adjustments.

I speculated that perhaps it was because of still being in the honeymoon phase of my infatuation with Paris, but after consulting with fellow North American expats here, I discovered that I’m not alone. Life here feels healthier… and not in the ways I would’ve expected.

As a health and beauty editor from California, my routine used to consist of squeezing in as many exclusive fitness workouts as possible into my week: reformer Pilates, Barry’s and SoulCycle, hot girl walks, etc. I also relished leisurely strolls through Whole Foods and spin offs of Erewhon in San Diego, as well as grain bowls, açaí bowls, and $30 salads.

Don’t get me wrong, I adored my life in sunny Southern California, at the beach, living a healthy, active life. But Paris is different.

This essentially comes down to decreased anxiety levels. Again, this is still planet Earth, not a castle in the sky — there are definitely still daily stressors, life events, and emergencies. But in general, the style de vie here in Paris is very different from what many Americans are used to.

Everyone here has a different experience and perspective. I’m not French, I’m not Parisian, and this is just my unique, individual account. So I had some fellow North American expats weigh in, too.

What I’ve discovered about how the French approach health from living in Paris

The tempo is slower

In the US, particularly pre-COVID, my life was hyperfocused on productivity. In the workplace, at home, and in the gym. Whether it was goal setting and clearing out my inbox, or using 27 different wellness tracking apps trying to ‘biohack’ my health, simply being a human felt like several full-time jobs. I don’t want to use the whole “rat race” cliché, but even in my slower seasons, I felt like I was in a hamster wheel.

Amy Buchanan, PhD, clinical psychologist at One Medical agrees that our hyperspeed American culture (and pressures of productivity) can certainly contribute to poor health outcomes. “While productivity can be gratifying and helpful in many regards, too much pressure to fit in more each day can contribute to increased stress and take away from organic opportunities to rest that our bodies and minds need,” she says. “Over time, this chronic stress can negatively impact our psychological and physical wellness.”

This became especially apparent within my first month of living in France. I remember asking my therapist: “Is it okay to just… be?” Perhaps it’s a French laissez-faire kind of energy, but things are slower and simpler for me here, even in the bustling capital city.

I’m more relaxed here. I know for many French people and Europeans however, this city can feel fast paced and cold… but compared to my day-to-day life in the US, it’s a dramatically slower and easier pace of life. And to boot, I’m also significantly less stressed about health-care costs. Medical expenses feel “basically free” compared to what I’ve been paying the past three decades in the US because I’m able to sign up for France’s universal health care, even as an expat. But I digress….

New York-based therapist Jason Maas, LMHC, concurs that this slow-down directly contributes to a healthier body in many ways, and clarified my anecdotal experience from a clinical perspective.

“The key to understanding how a slower pace of life is healing and helpful for the body is to consider how the body was designed to keep us safe,” says Maas. “Our sympathetic nervous system is designed to activate the body into a fight or flight response, sending blood flow to areas that heighten our senses, and give energy it needs to evade a predator… only now the predator is in our minds. What is happening is we end up living in this chronic state of hypervigilance, which leads to adrenal problems, chronic fatigue, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, types of inflammation. Stress is a fundamental factor in disease.”

Maas tells me that by slowing my pace, I’ve contributed to my overall well-being in a powerful way. “Learning to slow down is a way of showing the body that everything’s okay,” he says.

More walking, less gym time

Yes, we all know that living in a city like Paris (even New York!) is synonymous with an increased daily step count. We’re walking everywhere, getting outside more. Coming from California, getting out of the car and onto the sidewalks was a major shift. I now walk every day, and not just a walk around the block with my dog. On some days, I walk seven miles just doing errands, meeting up with friends, or exploring the city.

Morgan Hizar, an American expat in Paris since 2018, also emphasizes the value walking more has had on her own health—she shares that her town in Ohio was far from walkable. “We would literally have to take our car to go intentionally walk somewhere [laughs],” she says. “It would require extra time out of our day from working, commuting, etc., whereas here [in Paris], it’s just part of our daily life. I very easily hit 10K steps without even trying, whereas in the US I had to intentionally go out to walk.” Statistically, this is true for most Americans—the average US adult walks fewer than 4,000 steps per day, according to Mayo Clinic.

Walking has been the bulk of my personal wellness routine since moving abroad. And what’s wild is that despite having less time in boutique studios and gyms than my “former life,” I’m still staying in shape and I feel great. I go to one, maybe two workouts a week. Usually reformer Pilates (in French, which is fun!). Sometimes ballet, sometimes yoga. Nothing intense.

As mentioned, I used to be obsessed with going to workouts—and my fellow expats were too. Some of this comes down to a cultural shift, leaving North America and coming to Europe.

“American culture had a huge impact on the way I used to approach working out,” says Jamie Nyqvist, an American-Finnish content creator and digital marketer (living in Paris since 2016). “The gym was a huge part of my routine; I liked working out solo with my weights. But I find that “gym culture” is quite the opposite in France. People love group activities, especially ones that integrate working out in a natural way. Bouldering has become huge here; I’ve also seen a lot of jogging and outdoor workout groups.”

Nyqvist adds that the French take a different approach to staying fit than we do in the States. “They integrate concepts of functional training and working out into their daily lives. ‘Unintentional movement’ is a huge part of a Parisian’s day, whether it’s walking to the metro, biking, or walking up several flights of stairs.”

Canadian expat Allie Goodbun, principal dancer at Moulin Rouge (living in Paris since 2021) noted that the boutique fitness craze is only just beginning to catch on in Paris.

“Wellness culture is SO different here,” she says. “Fitness is a bit more advanced, more current in North America,” she says. “Because there, that is your way of feeling put together—by doing your morning routine, wearing your workout clothes,Engaging in physical activity. [In Paris], ‘efficiency’ involves savoring your leisurely morning, ensuring your residence is tidy, dressing in a stylish outfit, and visiting the bakery—it’s a distinct mindset.” Goodbun mentions that she exchanged a gym subscription for access to the urban bike share platform Vélib’; she cycles around Paris daily, discovering the various neighborhoods.

It’s simpler to consume nutritious food

You might be pondering, alright… butter, croissants, cheese, wine, and even cigarettes… How on earth do you maintain a healthier diet in France? And believe me, I understand. I still don’t grasp the entire cigarette aspect (apologies, France), but as for the rest? I’ve been practicing intuitive eating—essentially consuming whatever I desire mindfully, with no food category being off-limits, ever.

Hailing from (coastal, southern) California where everything is vegan, raw, sprouted, sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, I actually observed how that manner of eating (and approach to food) can be unwholesome. In fact, I obtained certification in nutrition coaching with Precision Nutrition to assist individuals in discovering more food freedom, because I observed how much food fear was harming people around me.

All kinds of food are embraced in France, from buttery viennoiseries (baked goods) to cured meats and melty raclette cheese. Dairy isn’t the villain here, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a gluten-free baguette. Additionally, alongside welcoming milk, sugar, flour, and other items that have been condemned in American health culture, there’s a focus on whole foods (very, very few processed foods), and consumption of seasonal fruits and vegetables.

“The French heavily prioritize the seasonality of produce, and frequently you’ll only come across certain foods available when they’re in season,” expresses Hizar. “It makes crafting seasonal recipes more enjoyable, and the quality of the produce is much superior, not to mention local. I get thrilled every year to see cherries in season.” And as it relates to her health? She states that the seasonality has motivated her to cook more at home, “Instead of simply grabbing something convenient to reheat in the US.”

Regarding desserts, it’s not an everyday indulgence… and they’re much less processed. “Although we tend to equate French desserts with the exquisite, luscious cakes and treats we see in patisseries, a typical daily dessert for the French is a simple plain yogurt, a piece of fruit, or a small bit of cheese,” conveys Tessa Bicard, head of operations for cosmetics brand Typology (and fellow Californian in Paris). “And even those beautiful looking creations that are reserved for special occasions tend to contain lower sugar content than their equivalents in the US.”

I will mention, however, both Goodbun and I relish a daily croissant.

In addition to seasonal availability and generally more wholesome food options, eating nutritiously is also more economical for me here than in the US—the expats I conversed with affirmed this based on their own experiences. Expatriate and content creator Amanda Rollins (in Paris since 2017) remarks, “Fruits and vegetables are among the most budget-friendly items you can purchase here, whereas in the US, they are usually the priciest. It makes opting for a healthier choice easier if you’re considering your budget; you’re less inclined to select a cheap, packaged, processed snack if a nourishing food is equally priced or cheaper.”

As for routines, those are somewhat distinct as well—particularly concerning snacks, mentions Bicard. “While snacking in between meals is entirely normal in the US, there are actually public health campaigns about the hazards of snacking for your health [here in France],” she notes. “I think this is because mealtime is revered here; it’s a period to spend with family, friends or even a serene moment to yourself. But it’s very deliberate. Not snacking allows for more complete, enjoyable and indulgent meals without as much guilt.”

Bicard also adds that this extends to eating during the work day. Having spent a collective 12 years in France and alternating between California and Paris for her entire adult life, she’s encountered both corporate cultures. “Forget the dismal salad at your desk as you power through your lunch hour,” she remarks. “We’re not even supposed to eat at our desks in my French office, and colleagues will give you a curious glance if you work through your break. On any typical weekday, you’ll find me having a two to three course meal in a nearby café with coworkers, or going out for a dance class or the gym. The midday lunch hour is intended for genuinely taking a break. This has significantly benefited my mental well-being and work-life balance.”

My primary takeaways from embracing a French approach to health

It’s all well and good to state “I feel healthier,” correct? But what does that signify?

I’m not following the scientific method here (obviously!). And I don’t wish to state “Just trust me,” either… This is solely a sincere narrative from someone who feels better and wants to impart it to the world.

Aside from an overall sense of serenity and day-to-day ease and tranquility, I’m experiencing fewer migraines—and that’s without treatment. In California, I was receiving Botox from a neurologist, as a chemodenervation and preventive treatment, every 12 weeks. I haven’t undergone treatment since April, and yet, my migraine frequency has lessened. I’m also encountering less painful periods, reduced anxiety, and improved sleep.

Bicard also shares that this lifestyle has facilitated her to shed a few pounds with minimal effort. “I’ve shed around 15 pounds without really making an effort,” she informs me. “Simply by adjusting my diet and eating in a manner that’s culturally more accepted here.”

If you’re not endeavoring to shed weight, it may be easier to sustain a healthy weight with these principles in mind. Rollins informs me that since residing here, weight management has become much more effortless. “The quality of food here [in France] is so much superior that I don’t need to diet anymore,” she discloses. “I don’t overeat, and I effortlessly maintain a healthy weight. The lifestyle has undeniably made me a healthier individual.”

Implementing a French approach to health at home

You don’t need to uproot your life and relocate to Europe to incorporate these insights (although I wouldn’t advise against it if you were so inclined). Any of them can be integrated into your life, wherever you are.

“The urgency that we are coerced into—especially in American culture but across the globe—has seeped into much of how we orchestrate our day, in increasing velocity,” states Maas. “Whether we have the privilege of living in a culture that values slowness and thoughtfulness or not, there’s an ongoing opportunity for each of us to always become more attentive to the potential to construct a slower, more mindful way of traversing our day.”

How do we accomplish that? Coincidentally, it commences with the word how.

“Many people contemplate the ‘what’ of their day,” remarks Maas. “What time we wake up, what will we have for breakfast, what will I do for work, what exercise am I doing, what’s for dinner, what will I watch, what will I do before bed, etc. And while those choices are very important for assembling our day, it’s crucial to acknowledge the how that molds the moment-to-moment response to our nervous system.”

He elucidates that you could be preparing the most nutritious breakfast on the planet, but if you’re doing it in a rushed frenzy, “with impatience and frustration, while hurrying and feeling agitated,” he states, you’re signaling to your nervous system to unleash havoc on your health.

“The sympathetic nervous system is ‘sympathetic’ to how stimulation is incoming; so if stimulation is urgency and impatience, it reacts with cortisol and an elevated heart rate. Remember: the sympathetic nervous system is our ally—it’s our body striving to help us. We need to ponder how to aid it, and how we can assist each other!”

Buchanan concurs. You can do this at home! Concentrate on “Prioritizing investment in areas of life that align with our values and setting boundaries,” she advises. “This can foster increased equilibrium.”

My principal individual insight from this is that we don’t need to overcomplicate our health, but we do need to emphasize these fundamentals. “Relax, consume nourishing food, and stroll” isn’t necessarily an innovative concept, but the combination has certainly transformed my life.

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