Moving to France has improved our health
Readers tell Gillian Harvey how their new lives in France transformed their lives and made them healthier
Better living seems to be the norm when people move to France – whether it is the better climate, better eating or just the revitalising effect of moving to a new country with a new language; people can hope to live longer here.
The World Health Organisation says France has one of the world’s best life expectancy rates as the average man can expect to live to 82, and the average woman to 85. In Britain the figures are 81 for men and 83 for women. So what is it about France that encourages better living?
Personal trainer and nutritionist Saski Ford said: “Although becoming fit still requires dedication and commitment, France does offer us the opportunity to become fitter, provided we don’t overindulge on croissants, cheese and wine.
“What is strikingly different is the time the French appear to take to eat meals, often sitting for a long period of time. This allows them to eat at a slower pace which aids digestion and also makes overconsumption less likely, as opposed to the UK ‘eat on the go’ culture.”
Saski, owner of the Limelight Retreat in Bussière-Poitevine, added: “People in the UK also choose unhealthy options, leading to the urge to snack later in the day due to ‘sugar slump.”
In France there are also fewer takeaway outlets, creating a combination of less temptation and an increased likelihood people will cook healthier meals at home. “I definitely feel the overall French attitude to life is more relaxed, particularly in the country. Adopting a relaxed approach can lower stress levels – there doesn’t seem to be the same urgency here as in England, and, for some, this more relaxed pace of life can lead to improvements in blood pressure and other stress-related conditions,” she said.
The fact France tends to enjoy a little more sun than the UK can also work wonders, from both a psychological and physiological perspective.
Sun exposure helps the body produce Vitamin D, which helps regulate calcium levels for healthier bones and teeth, and supports the health of the immune, brain and nervous systems. Finally, Vitamin D regulates insulin levels, supports lung function and improves cardiovascular health and can even stave off some diseases.
It is not simply about diet. France is also changing its health legislation to make sport an activity that can be prescribed by a doctor, following a pilot scheme that has been running in Strasbourg for three years.
Fitness has become something of a fashion, with membership of running clubs and participation in amateur competitions at an all time high.
“Through my work as a personal trainer and sports massage therapist, I see recurring problems on a regular basis – particularly mobility issues.
“You can be a healthy individual but if you lack muscular strength and mobility which includes good, healthy joint and ligament function then you cannot perform optimally and are prone to the everyday niggles, aches and pains.”
I've lost a third of my bodyweight
Roz Harris, 49, Châlus, Haute-Vienne
Former paramedic, Roz, moved to Limousin in 2007, with husband Neil, 51, hoping for a different pace of life.
“We both worked in the ambulance service,” she said, “and 12-hour shifts were the norm. It was a very stressful occupation and took its toll on our health.”
While working as a paramedic between 1993 and 2007, Roz gained a significant amount of weight and by the time she left the service, her weight had ballooned to more than 18 stone, an extremely unhealthy weight for her 5ft 3in frame.
“The shifts really made eating healthily difficult – lots of paramedics have similar problems.
“When you’re on call, you can’t really take time to prepare proper food.
“We’d rely on microwave meals or – worse – end up popping into garages to grab chocolate and crisps.”
Things came to a head for Roz when she began to feel dizzy and have palpitations.
“I went to the doctor and he told me that my blood pressure was sky high. It was a real wake-up call,” she explained.
Tired of their unhealthy lifestyle, Neil and Roz made the decision to move to France for a different pace of life.
“I now work part-time as a groom for a horse breeder,” said Roz. “I’d started my career as an assistant horse trainer for the Metropolitan Police, so it was getting back to something I really loved doing.”
As well as feeling more relaxed, Roz has become a keen runner since her move.
“I started off on a treadmill as I was too embarrassed to run outside in the UK,” she said.
“But now I run around the beautiful Limousin countryside. We also own two Border Collies, Tess and Woody: they give me an extra incentive to get out and about!”
With her new fondness for fitness, as well her improved diet (the couple grow their own vegetables and eat a more ‘natural’ diet with fewer convenience foods) Roz has shed a third of her bodyweight in the eight years since her move and now weighs a much-lighter 12 stone.
More importantly, her health has dramatically improved. “My blood pressure is back down,” she said. “The doctor originally put me on medication, but now I’m off it completely.”
Rather than being a chore, Roz’s new dedication to healthy living seems to have been a natural part of her change of culture.
“Moving somewhere new helped me to break bad habits more easily,” she said. “And I know I can’t let myself get bigger again.
“I now run about three times a week – covering up to 14km.
“I’m not a saint and still enjoy a good glass of wine - but, then, I am in France.”
My arthritis has improved significantly
Lesley Wybrow, 61, Villeréal, Lot
Former paediatric nurse and mother of five, Lesley Wybrow, was diagnosed with psoriasis 30 years ago, shortly after the birth of her fourth child, Victoria.
“It was horrible – I had it on my head, my chest, my shins,” she said.
“It probably covered around 10% of my body and the itching would drive me mad. It improved with medication, but never went away completely.”
But it was 15 years later in 2000 that her real problems began.
“I began to develop pain in the joint of my index finger,” she said.
“At first, I thought I’d just strained it, but when the pain didn’t go away, I went to the doctor.”
The doctor diagnosed psoriatic arthritis, an inflammation of the joints. While initially the problem was just in her finger joint, this seemingly small impediment made Lesley’s working life nearly impossible.
“It didn’t bend, so it was impossible to make a bed, or hold a syringe properly,” she explained.
The arthritis worsened and spread to other joints, including Lesley’s wrist and ankle.
“I couldn’t even get my shoes on,” she said.
“I had to wear an ankle splint and a wrist splint just to keep mobile.”
Working in a stressful environment as a high dependency paediatric nurse, Lesley felt that the stress of her job contributed to her poor health.
“I’d often be on my own, and the work was both physically and emotionally draining,” she said.
Having been coming to France for 40 years for their holidays, Lesley and husband Dave, 64, began to consider a permanent move.
“I knew that living in a warmer climate might help,” explained Lesley. “So we decided to give it a go.”
The result has been almost miraculous for Lesley. “Within a year, I’d stopped wearing my splints – I was much happier and more comfortable.”
Lesley, whose psoriasis has also all but disappeared, attributes her improved health to the “lack of stress” and “better climate” her new life in France affords.
“The treatment is the same,” she said, “although I no longer need the topical cream for my psoriasis.
“I still have problems, but I feel so much better here; moving to France has really changed my life for the better.”
I found out the hard way just how good French healthcare is
Steve Goodman-Kay, 61, Fursac, Creuse
Former medic, Steve, was a fitness fanatic in his younger years.
“I used to do triathlons, parachuting, abseiling, sky-diving, the lot,” he said.
“I was ultra-fit – and even ran a marathon in 2 hours and 17 minutes. But eventually it all took its toll on my body; my hip started going and I lost muscle because of it; then my left knee began to give me pain because of the pressure put on it.”
Although Steve took his aches and pains in his stride, it was when he began to experience pain in his shoulders that his problems really began.
“I was in constant discomfort,” he explained.
“And although I went to various UK doctors in the three-year period before we moved, no-one could work out what was wrong.”
He added: “I was on morphine patches by the end.”
On moving to France, Steve registered with his local doctor.
“Almost immediately I was referred to a specialist, who diagnosed ‘bone rubbing on bone',” he said.
“It was such a relief to have a proper diagnosis after being made to feel like a nuisance in the UK.”
Two operations later, Steve has now been able to reduce his pain medication and is in much better health.
Indeed, accident-prone Steve has had more than his fair share of experience of the French medical system, but has nothing but praise for his local hospital and medical staff.
“A couple of years ago, I was digging out what I thought was a fairly small chunk of stone in the garden, and it fell against my leg and trapped me,” he said.
“It turned out to be a 500kg piece of rock. Luckily, my neighbours, the pompiers and doctors arrived quickly – my leg was badly damaged, but I could have lost it.”
“The aftercare was amazing. I’ve had over 100 sessions of physiotherapy – and even had a prescription for transport as I had no way of getting myself to hospital.
“I’ve also cut my hand with a chainsaw when working in the garden, and needed 27 stitches. Again, the care was fantastic.”
Certainly, with the excellent healthcare as well as an improved lifestyle, which includes growing his own vegetables, Steve is in much better health since his move and, rocks and chainsaws aside, it has been a positive experience.
How France helps your health
While many staple French foods, such as cheese and pâté, contain a lot of fat, recent research has concluded that fat may not be as detrimental to our health as once thought.
In addition, the French tend to have a healthy attitude to food; traditionally families sit together to eat and meals are not rushed. Eating more slowly and mindfully can be more satisfying, allowing us to feel full before the end of the meal, and help us to be more ‘in tune’ with our bodies.
Many expats also acquire more land than they had in the UK – this means that many more of us have fruit trees and may even start a vegetable patch or allotment. Having more time may also mean that we source local produce from markets so the food we consume may be fresher.
Of course, the final factor in becoming healthier is motivation – and a move can boost our positive mood.
While learning a language can involve a lot of commitment and study, the benefits are well worth it. As well as increasing our ability to communicate, enabling us to widen our social circle and improve our mood as a result, learning a second language has been proven to boost brain health.
Studies have even found that both dementia and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease are often diagnosed later in life for bilingual people.
Although some claim that it is harder to learn a language as you get older, studies have shown that the brain will benefit from acquiring a new language no matter what age you are.