Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Desperate Person's Guide to Getting Fit in Paris

A couple of weeks ago, I celebrated the anniversary of my move to Paris. While there have been many wonderful things about this year, there have, without a doubt, been some drawbacks too. The biggest of these is, of course, the endless hours of commuting, and their accompanying fallout which, as well as lack of sleep and reduced tolerance for other human beings, has included a significant reduction in the amount of exercise I get in an average week.

When I lived in the suburbs, I used to walk to and from the RER station just about every day. It added an extra 15 minutes or so on to my travel time, but with the whole commute coming in at around 45 minutes each way, I could easily afford it. Now, in my never-ending battle to win back time from the RATP, I rarely sacrifice vital minutes, but I nevertheless have even less time in the evenings and at weekends to get off my backside and do something active.

The consequence of all of this was that summer came around and I realised that while I wasn't significantly fatter, I was definitely flabbier and not nearly as fit as I used to do. And given that I had arranged to spend a week in July backpacking in the Pyrenees with a friend who is the human equivalent of the Duracell bunny some action had to be taken. Here are some of the things I did:

Walk at the end of my commute: there is no commuter's regret greater than realising that because you took the time to walk to the station, you missed the last train before rush-hour disaster set in. I found it easier to walk from the RER to our flat in the evening, when I knew that the risky part of my journey was over.

Cycle: light mornings and evenings, coupled with improving weather, meant that I started to take more advantage of my Vélib subscription. I also discovered that, while the centre of Paris is pretty flat, if you want some serious hill training, all you have to do is ride along the cycle path that follows the tramlines 3a and 3b, taking in the 13th, 19th and 20th arrondissements, where there are hills so steep that there are even warnings on some of the tram stops about the gradient. Understanding Frenchman and I also cycled out along the voie verte to visit friends in Antony. We arrived hot, sweaty and late, but it was definitely a good workout. (Just be aware that while you can put your bike on the RER, you're not allowed to take it on the metro, the tramway or the buses, as we discovered as we tried to make our way back home in an impending thunderstorm.)

Fontainebleau Rocks
Hike: if you want a more challening trail than the streets of Paris, head out to Fontainebleau, where you can clock up an impressive altitude gain over the course of the day and enjoy scrambling over rocks in the process. We also went to the Forêt de Notre Dame in search of a change from our usually wander round the Bois de Vincennes.

Try Zumba: I was lucky enough to be able to attend weekly classes through work, but when that finished for the summer, a friend and I tried out the classes offered by Zumba France. These take place in nightclubs around Paris and there are several classes every evening of the week. You can do a trial for ten euros, then after that they are quite pricey, at 14 euros a time (although you can buy a subscription if you plan to go often), but we had a lot of fun and this was one of the most effective things that we did. After just a couple of classes, I felt so much better - Zumba is a good cardio workout but there was quite a lot of toning involved too. My friend wore a heartrate monitor and it reckoned that she was working in the ideal zone and burning over 400 calories per hour. Plus, it's so much fun and you have to concentrate hard on the steps, so you forget to notice how hard your body is working!

Have a metro ban: I didn't do this, but friends of ours once trained for a trek in Nepal by banning public transport from their lives. (They don't have a car either.) Everywhere they wenrt, they either walked or cycled, and as they live in the 19th, at one of those Vélib stations where you get extra points if you leave a bike, they got fit pretty fast!

Climb the stairs: being lucky enough to live in a modern building with a lift, we tend to use it when actually we could easily walk. I always find it a bit annoying when magazine articles suggest you can get fit just by walking instead of taking the lift, but if you do it with a heavy bag of shopping after doing one of the other activities on the list, you'll get a fairly similar feeling in your legs to what you might experience at the end of a long day of hiking! (A friend of mine who lives in an 18-storey building took this technique way further and actually made a point of climbing from the bottom to the top of her building several times per day and getting the concierge to record her progress. She doesn't live in Paris though - I suspect you'd get funny looks if you tried that here!).

Run (slowly). I actually hate running, but Understanding Frenchman and I went out one day and I think he was a good influence on me, because I have a tendency to go too fast and give up too soon. It was helpful to have a running partner with more self-discipline, and we managed 25 minutes at a fairly steady pace.

The best news is that doing all of these things really worked! I could feel muscles coming back where previously it had all been a little bit wobbly, and the trip to the Pyrenees was a roaring success because the Duracell Bunny and I turned out to have similar levels of fitness and motivation. Whether I'll be able to keep it up in the dark days of November remains to be seen, but at least I know how much difference just a little bit of time and effort can make!


  1. This is a great post! I so so wish that I could actually motivate myself to get fit!

    1. It took a massive motivation/reward in the form the trip to the Pyrenees trip to get me started, but it was really worth it! And you have gorgeous countryside nearby to help you out!

  2. Well done! I find competing against people for the number of steps/km/etc helps to motivate me, although I get a bit cranky as J has a proper pedometer and I just have an app which short-changes me (plus I can't walk around all day at work holding my phone).

  3. That is so unfair! UFM has a proper GPS which has this really evil feature that tells you how long you were actually "on the move" for. If you stop, even just for a few seconds, it stops counting, and it's so depressing to see how much time we actually spend NOT walking when we think we've been out for hours!

  4. I got fit(ter) in Canada by walking. Seriously. The first couple of years, I drove everywhere and spent a ot of time indoors. Then I decided to hit the gym--I hated it. I'm too French for that. So I turned to walking. I rediscovered the city, saved money on gas and built some muscles. Cheapest way to get fit too!