Adding life to your years and years to your life.
It’s universal knowledge that good health means eating right, exercising and checking in with the doctor every so often. But as a senior, how do you stay in shape in a new country, despite its endless supply of croissants and full fat cheeses?
We sat down with French sports coach, researcher and professor, Gilles Toubon, who has worked with seniors for over 25 years and he gave us some tips on why and how to stay fit in France.
What motivates seniors to get physically active?
The reasons vary, but in general their focus is on health, not getting buff and beautiful, but simply maintaining and improving their physical well-being. The ultimate goal is to age well, remain as independent as possible, limit medication and feel good in their minds and bodies for as long as possible.
Another reason to get active as a senior is the social aspect of sports and being in contact with others. People tend to isolate themselves as they get older, unless of course they stay active.
What about the secret to longevity? Can you live longer if you exercise?
The answer is yes, without a doubt! The scientific proof backing this up has never been so abundant1. Exercise will soon be prescribed as treatment for illness in France and is already replacing certain drugs. Dr. Saldmann2, a French cardiologist and physician of preventive medicine says that “30 minutes of physical exercise per day reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s (…) In addition German researchers found that exercise generates high quality immunoprotection.”
It been proven for years that physical activity slows the onset of dementia, recent studies even showing that exercise can reverse symptoms of the disease3.
Is it ever too late to start exercising?
No, absolutely not. You can always reap the rewards of exercise, even if you start at 60! There’s a famous Canadian Olympian who’s won more medals than any female athlete on Earth. Olga Kolteco started seriously exercising at 77 years old and ended up setting world records in every event she entered in her category (which just so happened to be 90 – 94 age group in the Senior Olympics). It’s never too late!
There are many examples:
Claude, a neighbor and friend of mine, started exercising regularly at age 45. He went on to run several marathons and at today 88 he still bikes at least four times a week.
Gilles teaches future sports coaches in France and is known for his perfected approach to senior health. In his hometown of Junas, he even gives classes that are very popular with local retirees, both French and expat. A mixture of postural and balancing exercises, weight training (yes, Gilles is a firm believer that building muscle is key at all ages!) and stretching – Gilles gym class is packed every Monday and Thursday morning. I should know, I’m the youngest of his students!
What fitness goals should seniors concentrate on?
There are four main physical qualities that constitute a person’s well-being: strength; endurance; mobility, or the capacity to move with a wide range of motion, soliciting both muscles and joints; and finally, speed – the latter not being a priority for seniors as it increases risks.
Muscle fibers start losing elasticity at 40-45 years of age, becoming more susceptible to injury. No matter what activity you choose, as a mature adult, it’s important to lessen the overall intensity and the session duration. The age on your ID might not match up with your biological age and we’re not all created equally. So, the key is to take it slow and warm up before any and all exercises.
What are the best sports for seniors?
- Walking (quickly!) – getting your heart rate up for 30 minutes every day is perfect! Or try Nordic Walking, which works both arms and legs and reduces stress on knees and ankles. And in the winter, why not switch to its cousin, Cross Country Skiing?
- Weight training: No, we’re not talking about bodybuilding! Weight training simply means exercising with additional weight and is one of the best full-body exercises that exists. Make sure to get your technique down pat and take your time with each repetition.
- Low impact sports like swimming, biking, rowing, etc.
- Other activities like Yoga, Pilates, stretching, Tai-Chi, etc.
Warning: Despite the world’s latest love affair with running, this type of high impact activity can be dangerous. In any case, have a chat with your doctor before starting a new sport.
Do you have to go to a gym, or are there activities you can do in your own home?
My secret weapon is called “spare-time sports”. For example, while you’re driving your car, think about working your perineal muscles. And at each traffic light, you simply squeeze your abdominal muscles as you wait for the light to turn green. Under the shower, exercise your feet by laying them as flat as possible on the floor, then stand on your tiptoes. Suck in your belly while you’re washing the dishes. Oh, and forget about the elevator! France is known for lacking in drive through windows and escalators, so there are loads of opportunities to walk around town and up/down stairs!.
A major cause of mortality is sedentarism and the human body only feels good when it’s in motion. We’re not talking about exercising or practicing a sport – simply moving around, playing with your grandchildren, gardening, airing through an open air food or flea market, biking to get your daily baguette, etc.
What about diet?
I don’t want to give any dietary recommendations as I’m not a nutritionist. However, I can say for sure that health is an ensemble of several things:
- Diet, which is a priority – you really are what you eat. If you eat poorly, no amount of exercise will make up for that.
- Physical activity – regular but moderate exercise.
- Sleep, which heals and regenerates cells.
- Stress reduction: Surround yourself with positive people and focus on making daily life as stress-free as possible
Renestance’s clients are people who have chosen France as the place they would like to spend a period of their life, often their retirement, what advice can you give expats who have recently arrived and would like to maintain a healthy lifestyle here?
Being in good shape is not just about exercising!
- Find a network of friends and get involved. Social connections are just as important to health as 30 minutes of cardio each day.
- Find an activity where you can meet new people, either before or after the class (not during, that’s when we work!).
- Find a good gym teacher who is reassuring and makes you feel safe.
- Vary your activities to avoid getting bored. Fitness has to be a long-term priority, a way of life. Yes, it can sometimes get boring or unpleasant and you need persistence.
- Don’t follow trends: As with everything, people like consuming fitness, following trends and looking for quick fixes, but they tend to not give themselves the means to stick it out and actually reach their health goals.
Resources and vocabulary
Looking to get active in France? Here are a few ideas to help you find the best activity for your lifestyle:
- Sports Clubs and Associations (associations sportives)
Les associations sportives exist in the thousands in France and offer a variety of classes and outings, often at very competitive prices. Everything from Nordic walking to Tai-Chi, courses generally run through the school year (yes, even retirees need a summer break!), so be sure to head to your local foire aux associations in September to learn about local activities and sign up!
- Maison pour tous
Located in cities across the country, these socio-cultural centers have the mission to bring people together and offer them a variety of activities (art, culture, sports, etc.). Visit your local maison pour tous to learn about their often-extensive list of options to get fit, stay active and make new friends.
- Mayor’s office or town website
Your local mairie will have all of the details on the various clubs and groups that organize classes and outings in your town. Cities like Montpellier have complete listings on their websites that you can access anytime. Consult for your local annuaire des associations.
- French Federation for Athletic Retirement
Despite its timid beginnings in Grenoble dating back to the 70s, the Federation Française de la retraite sportive now includes 60 regional committees, regrouping 441 affiliate association and clubs. Their mission is the development and promotion of senior sports. For more information in French, visit http://www.ffrs-retraite-sportive.org/
- Your doctor
You’ll need to visit your doctor, in order to obtain the mandatory certificat médical, stating that you are apt to participate in a specific physical activity. This required health check-up allows clubs and their members to reduce the risk of injury, and therefore eventual insurance risks. While you’re at the doctor’s office, ask about any local activities he/she might suggest for you.
How much does this all cost?
Depending on your location in France, classes range in price based on the frequency, the sport and the location.
For example, in rural France, a gym douce class will probably run you €150 for the year, payable in three quarterly installments. You’ll also pay an adhésion to become a member of the association running the course. This annual fee is usually around €10 and gives you access to the club’s courses and a vote at the club’s general meetings. You may also be asked to pay a small insurance fee.
In comparison, membership (abonnement) at a local gym costs between €25 and €150 per month and may or may not include unlimited access to the club’s full range of classes and equipment. Be sure to ask if the gym has classes geared towards seniors before signing up for an entire year.
With the thousands of baby boomers, which the French now affectionately call papy-boomers, reaching their senior years, private and public efforts to create opportunities for them to stay active are abundant.
Science has proven that regular exercise can add years to your life, at any age. So now, with endless options to get active, it’s up to you to find the perfect activity to add life to your years!
1: Exercise increases life expectancy: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3798023/
2: Dr. SALDMANN: http://www.vsd.fr/loisirs/sante-les-cles-du-dr-frederic-saldmann-pour-rester-en-forme-longtemps-19930
3: Physical activity prevents dementia: https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2017/07/21/Research-shows-how-physical-exercise-prevents-dementia/3921500647043/
Jennifer was Renestance's Activity & Excursions Coordinator between 2015 and 2020, a bilingual American from Vermont who's been loving her life in France since 1998. She was passionate about sharing her knowledge and allowing you to discover all of the scenic, cultural and culinary wealth of the Languedoc-Roussillon region.
All articles by: Jennifer Rowell-Gastard