Spring training

by Alison Benney
published by Irish Eyes, April 2005

Stand on one leg and hug the other to your chest. Better yet, do it while standing on a foam rubber mat or thick carpet. Now pull in your stomach. If you can hold the position for a minute without falling over, you probably have pretty good balance and "core strength", the latest buzzwords in being fit.

Fitness trends have evolved from concentrating on muscular development with bodybuilding, cardio endurance with aerobics, and flexibility and serenity with yoga, to most recently buffing up the midriff. Sometimes called glorified abdominal work, this approach concentrates on toning the body's "core", also called the "powerhouse", starting with the abdominals and radiating out to the shoulders and hips.

Made popular by the exercise regime known as pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-tees), which exploded onto the fitness scene in the US in 1998, it is only now becoming popular in France. At the 18th Salon Mondial Body Fitness, the annual fitness convention in March and a fairly reliable snapshot of the fitness scene here, there was only one vendor pushing some of the infamous pilates workout machines: the reformer, the trapeze table and the wunda chair.

The salon, held at the Parc Floral in the Bois de Vincennes, attracts almost 50,000 participants, including sports enthusiasts and fitness professionals, for both its programme of classes and workshops, as well as for its 150 merchants from around Europe, hawking everything from workout clothes or equipment for the home or gym, to club franchises and certification programs.

Yet the overwhelming number of booths promoting nutritional supplements - protein powders, energy bars, creatine capsules, even testosterone-boosters - and muscle electro-stimulation devices, alongside the array of traditional rowers, treadmills and weight machines, confirm that France has not yet caught up with sweaty, innovative American-style fitness. The salon's brochure spelled it out: the French are interested just as much in bien-Ítre as in la remise en forme. It cited a survey that reported the top three reasons for the French to work out as, first, the pleasure of doing a sport, then to let off steam, and, third, to relax. Only then are they motivated to work out in order to keep in shape, build muscle or lose weight.

This means that while the gym chains and training companies were well-represented at the salon, so were the spas and the thalassotherapy market, with sauna equipment and tanning accessories on display, as well as a couple of booths selling massage chairs, and two different kinds of head-massage brushes that claim to relax the body by dispelling "negative energy".

But who says France has to take on the American model? Apart from the novelty value, it is not clear that a higher level of fitness is gained by taking workshops like those offered at the big US convention last year, such as chi running, iron yoga, surfing and inner tube water polo. After all, in 2002, almost 31% of the American population still qualified as obese, compared to 9.4% of the French; furthermore, statistics show that despite the Gaulois smokes and buttery pastries, the French live longer. Somehow, they are able to stay healthy while enjoying good food with a moderate amount of sport and bien-Ítre. And that sounds like just the right balance.