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

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DECEMBER 28, 2023

Embracing the French approach to health, a young woman walks around Paris. – Photo: Getty Images/ F.J. Jimenez

It’s easy for Americans to romanticize life abroad… whisking away to a foreign locale and relaxing into a dreamy life, far from the cortisol-fueled chaos of the corporate world in the States. In fact, I romanticized it so much that I leapt across the pond myself, golden retriever in tow, to pursue la vie en rose in Paris.

Moving to a new country has come with its fair share of hurdles—visa documents, legal logistics, the dreaded dossier (extensive paperwork required for renting) and apartment hunting—but living in the City of Light also comes with incredible benefits and lifestyle changes.

I thought that perhaps it was due to still being in the honeymoon phase of my love affair with Paris, but after conferring with fellow North American expats here, I found 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 cramming as many boutique fitness workouts as possible into my week: reformer Pilates, Barry’s and SoulCycle, hot girl walks, etc. I also enjoyed long 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 loved my life in sunny Southern California, at the beach, living a healthy, active life. But Paris is different.

This fundamentally comes down to lowered stress 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 learned about how the French approach health from living in Paris

The pace 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, working out. [In Paris], ‘productivity’ is enjoying your slow morning, making sure your house is clean, putting on a really nice outfit, and going to the boulangerie—it’s a different mindset.” Goodbun says that she swapped a gym membership for a subscription to the urban bike share platform Vélib’; she bikes around Paris each day, exploring the different arrondissements (neighborhoods).

It’s easier to eat healthy

You could be thinking, okay… butter, croissants, cheese, wine, and even cigarettes… How the hell do you have a healthier diet in France? And trust me, I get it. I still don’t understand the whole cigarette thing (sorry, France), but as for the rest? I’ve been intuitive eating—essentially eating whatever I want mindfully, with no category being off limits, ever.

Coming from (coastal, southern) California where everything is vegan, raw, sprouted, sugar-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, I actually saw how that type of eating (and approach to food) can be unhealthy. In fact, I got certified in nutrition coaching with Precision Nutrition to help people find more food freedom, because I saw how much food fear was hurting people around me.

All types of foods are embraced in France, from buttery viennoiseries (baked goods) to cured meats and melty raclette cheese. Dairy isn’t the devil, here, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a gluten-free baguette. But in addition to welcoming in milk, sugar, flour, and other things that have been vilified in American health culture, there’s an emphasis on whole foods (very, very few processed foods), and eating seasonal fruits and vegetables.

“The French focus heavily on seasonality of produce, and oftentimes you’ll only find certain foods available when they’re in season,” says Hizar. “It makes it more fun to make seasonal recipes, and the quality of the produce is much better, not to mention local. I get so excited when I see cherries in season every year.” And as it pertains to her health? She says the seasonality has encouraged her to cook more at home, “Versus just grabbing something easy to reheat in the US.”

And as for the desserts? It’s not an everyday thing… and they’re way less processed. “Although we tend to equate French desserts with the decadent, 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,” says Tessa Bicard, head of operations for cosmetics brand Typology (and fellow Californian in Paris). “And even those beautiful looking creations that are saved for special occasions tend to be lower in sugar than their counterparts in the US.”

I will say, though, both Goodbun and I enjoy a daily croissant.

On top of seasonal availability and generally healthier food options, eating healthy is also less expensive for me here than in the US—the expats I spoke with confirmed from their own experiences, too. Expat and content creator Amanda Rollins (in Paris since 2017) says, “Fruits and vegetables are some of the cheapest things you can buy here, whereas in the US, they are usually the most expensive. It makes it easier to choose a healthier option if you’re considering your budget; you’re less inclined to grab a cheap, packaged, processed snack if a healthy food is the same price or cheaper.”

As for habits, those are a bit different as well—specifically around snacking, says Bicard. “Whereas snacking in between meals is completely normal in the US, there are actually public health campaigns about the dangers of snacking for your health [here in France],” she says. “I think this is because mealtime is sacred here; it’s a time to spend with family, friends or even a relaxing moment to yourself. But it’s very intentional. Not snacking allows for more whole, enjoyable and decadent meals without as much guilt.”

Bicard also adds that this applies to eating during the work day. After spending a collective 12 years in France and oscillating between California and Paris for her entire adult life, she’s experienced both corporate cultures. “Forget the sad salad at your desk as you crank through your lunch hour,” she says. “We’re not even supposed to eat at our desks in my French office, and coworkers will look at you sideways if you work through your break. On any given weekday, you’ll find me having a two to three course meal in a nearby café with coworkers, or heading out to a dance class or the gym. The midday lunch hour is meant for truly taking a break. This has been a big help to my mental health and work/life balance.”

My biggest lessons from embracing a French approach to health

It’s all fine and good to say “I feel healthier,” right? But what does that mean?

I’m not using the scientific method here (obviously!). And I don’t want to say “Just trust me,” either… This is just an honest account from someone who feels better and wants to share it with the world.

Aside from a general sense of relaxation and day-to-day ease and peace, I’m suffering fewer migraines—and that’s without treatment. In California I was getting Botox from a neurologist, as a chemodenervation and preventive treatment, every 12 weeks. I haven’t had treatment since April, and yet, my migraine frequency has waned. I’m also enjoying less painful periods, less anxiety, and better sleep.

Bicard also shares that this lifestyle has helped her lose weight with little effort. “I’ve lost around 15 pounds without really trying,” she tells me. “Just by adjusting my diet and eating to what’s culturally more accepted here.”

If you’re not trying to lose weight, it may be easier to maintain a healthy weight with these concepts in mind. Rollins tells me that since living here, weight management has come much more easily. “The quality of food here [in France] is so much higher that I don’t need to diet anymore,” she says. “I don’t binge, and I maintain a healthy weight easily. The lifestyle has absolutely made me a healthier person.”

Applying a French approach to health at home

You don’t have to pack up your life and move to Europe to integrate these lessons (though I wouldn’t steer you away if you were so inclined). Any of them can be integrated into your life, wherever you are.

“The urgency that we are compelled into—particularly in American culture but across the world—has taken hold in much of the way we approach our day, in growing speed,” says Maas. “Whether we have the privilege of living in a culture that values slowness and deliberateness or not, there’s an ongoing opportunity for each of us to always become more mindful of the possibility to create a slower, more conscious way of moving through our day.”

How do we do that? Funny you ask… it starts with the word how.

“Many people reflect on the ‘what’ of their day,” says 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 putting our day together, it’s important to recognize the how that creates the moment-to-moment feedback to our nervous system.”

He explains that you could be preparing the healthiest breakfast on the planet, but if you’re preparing it in a stressed hurry, “with impatience and frustration, while rushing and feeling anxious,” he says, you’re giving your nervous system the go-ahead to wreak havoc on your health.

“The sympathetic nervous system is ‘sympathetic’ to how stimulation is coming in; so if stimulation is urgency and impatience, it responds with cortisol and an elevated heart rate. Remember: the sympathetic nervous system is our friend—it’s our body trying to help us. We need to think about how to help it, and how we can help each other!”

Buchanan agrees. You can do this at home! Focus on “Prioritizing investment in areas of life that align with our values and setting boundaries,” she says. “This can support increased balance.”

My biggest personal takeaway from this is that we don’t need to over complicate our health, but we do need to emphasize these foundations. “Chill, eat good food, and walk” isn’t necessarily a revolutionary concept, but the combination has certainly revolutionized my life.


Courtesy: Well+Good