French not working out gym culture

2010-09-27 14:51

Paris – The French may love to look good, but few are willing to work up a sweat.

Despite increasing awareness of the benefits of healthy eating and physical exercise, going to the gym in France is a niche activity.

France’s generous healthcare system, its cultural preference for outdoor sports and its lack of affordable good-quality clubs are seen as reasons behind the country’s low rate of gym-goers – even relative to laid-back neighbours Spain or Italy.

“It appears to me that more people are sitting in cafes smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee than working out. The French don’t see fitness as a lifestyle,” says American-born fitness consultant Fred Hoffman, who has lived in Paris for 21 years.

Only 5.4% of French people belonged to a health club in 2008, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, compared with 9.5% for Italy, 11.9% for the United Kingdom and 16.6% for Spain.

The figure doesn’t include France’s numerous community fitness groups, or “associations”, which are entitled to government subsidies and tempt many consumers with cheap prices despite their often unsophisticated facilities.

Even taking into account this potential numbers gap, mass-market chains Club Med Gym and Fitness First say the $2 billion French market is a particularly tough slog. Property and staff are costly while competition from other sports is fierce.

“Football, tennis and cycling, those are the top-three activities of the French,” says Nadege Gaillard, marketing director for Club Med Gym, a Paris-focused brand that has not opened a single new club in nearly a decade. It is due to open a new venue in Paris in 2011.

Although rival Fitness First has had more luck opening clubs in and out of Paris, it is feeling the heat from the growth of no-frills centres that are stealing customers from pricier venues in a stagnating market.

“No services, no staff, that’s what’s growing. It’s a lot simpler just to open a shoe box and throw in some machines,” says Michel Parada, who heads Fitness First’s French operations.

No sweat
Working out also has an image problem in France, where few celebrities seem keen to publicly endorse the mucky business of sweating and straining on a cardio machine.

Even the sight of President Nicolas Sarkozy in running shoes jogging after his election in 2007 proved too much for some.

“I would rather see the president in his suit than in his sweat,” philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said at the time.

Consumers seem to prefer the aesthetic appeal of creams and cosmetics that claim to have slimming properties, according to Christophe Anandson of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.

“The credulity of the French isn’t favouring the growth of the fitness market,” he said.

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