By: Madeleine Snow
On my first day as an exchange student in France, my friend and I walked down to the cellar to get out des vélos (the bicycles) to ride to the Palace of Versaille. As a noob who thought a lap around my suburban block in New Jersey was a hardcore workout, this was a belly flop in the deep end. It didn’t help that there were several stretches of charming cobblestone on the way. A few weeks later, however, I found myself able to at least survive 7 km rides in the sunny Loire valley countryside. And it was awesome.
Throughout my time in France, I saw people of all ages ride their bikes in their morning commutes to work and school, to hang out with friends to go grocery shopping, and even to church. In the country, my friend, her sister, and I rode several miles to get to a goat farm and cheese factory. My friend’s mom, a woman probably in her mid-to-late fifties, would briskly zip down the street on her bike for some last-minute dinner ingredients.
Not only is the bicycle an object of the everyday: the cinema and the Tour de France have made riding a bike through the city a thing of romance. They don’t think of bicycling as a kind of exercise. It’s part of a way of life.
And it’s not surprising that getting around on two wheels instead of four has become so popular there. For starters, it’s a low-impact exercise, meaning that since it’s easier on your joints, you can get more reps in before tiring out. Plus, biking to get around is non-competitive, and frequent non-competitive exercise has been shown to lift subjective mood: that is, how happy you feel because of how you see yourself.
In a 2016 study, 33.7% of American adults were found to be obese. Meanwhile, the French obesity rate among adults was 23.9%. While some would blame the “French Paradox,” a scientific term applied by the jealous to the phenomenon of the French people getting away with living the good life and not succumbing to heart disease. An article on the “French Paradox” added the people’s exercise to the list as a preventative cure. As the well-known health and weight differences between the French and American populations show, they’re doing something right over there.
On those borrowed bikes in France, I got pushed past my limits and my friend encouraged me to keep going. Several years later in Ireland, I remembered that feeling again, when two college friends and I were riding through the Middle-Earth-esque Gap of Dunloe. My calves were burning, my heart was pounding, and my hands were sweating on the handlebars. I was distracted by the heathery hills and mossy forests around me, but my body was going to thank me later.
Author: Madeleine Snow
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