Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by people who thrive later in life. Hearing about senior citizens running races, climbing mountains, or embarking on their first round-the-world trip makes my day every time.
Since moving to France almost two decades ago, I’ve been surrounded by healthy, vibrant men and women beyond retirement age. I meet them regularly, either because of our similar lifestyle choices, or because I’m on the lookout for them, and I always try (without being too pushy) to get details on how they live their day-to-day.
One thing that I’ve learned about the French lifestyle is that it’s not only how you live when you’re older that makes the difference; It’s the choices you make throughout your life. Aging well comes from living well. The French, in general, grow up with healthy habits (I’ve chronicled children’s eating here and here for example) that carry into adulthood. But experts and research have shown over and over again, it’s never too late to get healthy.
Regardless of age, we can all learn from the thriving grandmeres and grandperes of France, so I’ve collected a few of the most impactful differences into this list. If you want to study of the topic further, I suggest a trip to France. From the streets of Paris and Lyon to the mountains of the Alps and the beaches of the Mediterranean, you’ll see the difference in how people live — and have the chance to immerse yourself in it. And, after all, what better way is there to learn?
Movement is a way of life.
From birth to old age, the French are active. People of all ages are regularly hiking, swimming, skiing, walking, cycling, just moving. They might be playing sports, running errands, gardening, or cycling to the office. Movement permeates every area of life. It isn't just a scheduled activity.
They never stop having fun.
The French celebrate family in many ways — one of these is including the older generation in everything they do. It’s not uncommon for grandparents to be invited to the younger generation’s celebrations (maybe they’ll leave a bit early, maybe they’ll be the last off the dance floor!). The perception that older people can’t or wouldn’t want to participate in the fun just doesn’t exist.
Food is just food.
It’s no secret the French are simultaneously obsessed and unobsessed with food. They expect delicious, fresh food to be part of their day-to-day lives, and they would never deprive themselves of things they love. It’s about unprocessed, real food in moderation.
They live by the pleasure principle.
Enjoyment is the guiding tenet for how the French live. They indulge in chocolate, sex, getting pampered — and they don’t feel guilty about it. They do what makes their bodies feel good, and they don’t apologize for it.
They roll with the punches.
When tragedy or pain strikes, the French see it as another part of life. Idealism is not indulged in France. The French take challenges in stride.
Self-acceptance is the default.
Americans have a self-imposed compulsion to pursue an unrealistic ideal of perfection. The French don’t. As a result, they tend to be much more confident. A slightly crooked nose, crow’s feet, wider hips, wrinkles: They accept what they have and make the most of it.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the beaches all over the country. Skin may be more wrinkled and less toned, but men and women of all ages bare their bodies in skimpy bathing suits, totally unconcerned about their imperfections. They save their energy for things they can actually achieve.
They don’t understand the concept of “letting oneself go."
Seniors in France don’t neglect themselves. They aren’t gaining weight, dismissing fashion, or forgoing cosmetic maintenance.
What we call “discipline,” they call “habit."
Things that would require a lot of willpower for most Americans are habits that have been ingrained in the French their whole lives. Think not eating between meals, exercising regularly, not cleaning your plate.
They have great boundaries.
The French have no problem saying no to dessert or a second serving (unless they really want it), to some crazy exercise (unless they really want to try it), to anything that feels wrong. Although it might come across as borderline rude to some, they're just focused on enjoying themselves. And, if what’s on offer isn't pleasure, it’s a definite "non."
There’s no age limit for sex, or sexiness.
France is not youth-obsessed. Sure, you’ll see obvious examples of cosmetic surgery, but some of the country’s most celebrated sex symbols today are natural beauties over 40 — many in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. Older French women have no problem with sexy skirts, heels, and cleavage, if that’s their style. Seduction and flirtation are game at all ages, and that keeps the French on their toes when it comes to vitality, well-being, and fitness.
They’re lifelong learners.
It's typical for the French to embark on a new sport or activity after retirement: Cycling, swimming, triathlons(!), art school, yoga, cross-country skiing, Zumba, dancing, a new language. It’s almost a given that the newly retired will pick up hobbies or activities.
They keep it together for the (grand)kids.
The French have the “it takes a village” approach to raising kids, so grandparents are expected to help out. Whether they live locally or not, they're often spotted during school holidays (In France, there are eight weeks of school holidays throughout the year — and that’s before the summer break!) toting kids to activities, playing with them at the park, or even taking them on holiday without the parents. So, the grandparents have to stay active and on their toes.
They do exactly what they want exactly when they want — without going overboard.
The concept of moderation is France's greatest ally in sustaining a high quality of life over time. The French never say no to what they enjoy — whether it’s alcohol, sugar, full-fat cheese, or anything else deemed forbidden in other places. They say yes to what they want, but in small quantities, and on special occasions. Even when it comes to fitness, they’re neither Olympic wannabes nor couch potatoes. They move enough, often enough, but never too much.
Rebeca Plantier is a journalist and author of French School Lunch, a two-year research project on France’s public school lunch program promoting health and wellbeing in children. She writes about about healthy living, travel, parenting and the French lifestyle—and her work has appeared on various sites, such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Salon, EatLocalGrown, travel site Matador Network and many others. Find her at rebecaplantier.com.