Sport in France is ageless

French people are seriously in love with the great outdoors and it is a great place to stay fit and young. Sally Ann Voak discovered the benefits of being active when her family moved to the Alps and speaks to others on their ways to keep healthy

21 June 2017
By Sally Ann Voak

The Gallic passion for enjoying activities in the fresh air is part of their national identity and extends into the “golden years”.

The opportunities for trying something adventurous are limitless at any age. To maintain or even improve your bien-être, the best medicine is le sport, and it is fun to combine sport passion with seeing more of France and sampling different local cuisines.

I am 75 and an enthusiastic skier and “after 40 years of sitting on my bottom as a journalist, I decided I would rather spend my seventies up a mountain than up the pub!”

In the Grand Massif, as in many other ski stations, ski passes are free for over-75s and my free pass is as  precious as my London bus pass!

It means I can glide down 140 pistes next season without paying a euro and, as my family have shown me the benefits of real cardio activity in the mountains, in summer, it gives free access to mountain-top randonnées.

La randonnée pédestre is an obvious choice of activity for retirees, but climbing, cycling, white water rafting, orienteering, canoeing, skiing and snow shoeing are not seen as daft or risky for a healthy older person.

But, as I have found, there are many other options and, when back in the UK, I have even taken up ice skating after 60 years...

Sue and Malcolm Hudson, Haute-Savoie

Seven years ago Sue Hudson, 71, moved from Northamptonshire to Samoëns, Haute-Savoie, with her husband, Malcolm, 73, and are enjoying their leisure time so much they “feel ready to tackle anything”.

The couple worked seven-day weeks in the UK running their successful shoe business, so did not have time for taking up sport properly, although they both enjoyed cycling.

“It became more and more of a hassle because of increased traffic and lack of time so I sold my bike,” Sue said. “When we moved here to be near our son and daughter, who
run chalet holiday companies in the Alps, the first sport I tried was snow-shoeing”

“Our elderly guide offered his flask of a potent local liqueur to flagging stragglers. When he led us behind a breath-taking waterfall the stragglers soon sobered up!

“I felt free and energised.”

“Malcolm got straight into skiing and disappears every morning during the season. I don’t ski but found I loved exploring the trails through the mountains, so I bought snow shoes and went walking with pals while our other halves hit the slopes.”

 Malcolm encouraged Sue to get back on her bike and she bought a lightweight model. He said: “When spring arrived, with all the wonderful villages to explore, we tried the flat roads in the valley. One day, we put the bikes on the car roof rack and cycled around Lake Annecy: heaven!

“Now, we go on cycling holidays with some close friends, all expats and all over 70. This year, we’ve explored the Camargue together.

“There’s great cycling for all levels in France with special traffic-free roads which you can research on the internet and at tourist offices. Sue prefers the gentle gradients, while I am into the more challenging routes.”

Malcolm added that, despite general thinking, “we older folk don’t ‘slow down’. In fact, we have more responsibilities than ever. When Sue and I get home from a cycle ride, we feel ready to tackle anything”. 

Kate and Mark Banks, Haute-Alpes

Kate and Mark Bankes summed up their new lifestyle in France, saying: “We have 300 days of good weather here, so what’s not to love about winter sports, hiking and kayaking?”

The couple have lived in the beautiful Les Ecrins national park area near Briançon for 17 years where they have built up a successful gite business.

Now aged 55 and 52, with three children, all educated in France, they cannot imagine their later life without sport and adventure.

“If we had stayed in Hertfordshire, we would have had to go to the Lake District to pursue our love of kayaking and climbing,” says Kate.

“Instead, it is readily accessible and as we get more leisure time, we are making the most of it.”

 “I walk our two Border Collies two or three times a week, we go on randonnée hikes with friends, sail in summer, ski in winter and Mark loves mountain biking and kite surfing.

“Briançon is the highest city in Europe, with 300 days of sunshine each year, so we are never put off by bad weather.

“The health benefits for both of us are excellent, and we are full of energy. We went back to the UK recently, and my arthritis played up!”

 The couple enjoy introducing their visitors (their accommodation is mainly in old houses in the historic Ville Vauban, renovated by Kate, Mark is a lawyer) to the huge variety of sports in the region.

“We have roughly half and half French and British guests. Many Brits come for the kayaking and climbing, then find other sports they enjoy.

“Newcomers are surprised at the choice and accessibility of sport, especially the older guests. In the UK, you have to travel, and the weather is unpredictable. Here, we have wonderful terrain: mountains, lakes, rivers, good weather. In winter, there’s skiing and snow shoeing.

“There is a strong ethic in France that everyone should be able to enjoy our beautiful country, young and old alike. We really love that feeling.” 

Maggie and David Fletcher, Manche

Maggie Fletcher says that the exercises that she has been using are helping to keep her body supple and have proved a great social idea, too.

Former primary school teacher Maggie, 70, says: “Yoga and Tai Chi Keep my body supple.”

She and husband David, 73, retired from Hampshire nine years ago to a small village near Mortain, Manche.

They have a son, daughter and four grandchildren who love to visit.

Manche department in Normandy is popular with golfers with eight courses (from nine to 18 holes), some playable all year round, which is perfect for keen golfer David.

Maggie says: “I was keen on hatha yoga in England, but never had time to do many classes.

“Now I try different types of classes and have become more proficient. For instance, I attend a free-flow yoga class run by an American teacher.

“Three years ago, I discovered Katy Hamlett’s classes for Tai Chi, a wonderful discipline and much harder than it looks!”

Ms Hamlett also teaches Qigong, which links breathing to smooth exercises, and Maggie is a firm fan.

“I’d recommend all these disciplines to retirees; they keep your body supple – which is so important as you get older – beat stress, are demanding without being too hard on your joints and help you shape up if you enjoy energetic sports like tennis, cycling and climbing.”

And as with all group leisure activities, she says: “The social side of the classes is excellent, too.”

Diana Costes Brook, Eure

As a horse rider, Diana Costes Brook was delighted to find the level of riding and access to good trainers and horses is very high in France. “I loved riding in England and when I moved to France I specialised in dressage and now compete regularly.”

Diana, 57, says: “If you enjoyed riding as a youngster and want to take it up again in retirement or are just a beginner, there are plenty of opportunities and wonderful places to explore.

“The Grande Randonnée 35 runs for about 180km from Verneuil-sur-Avre to Seiches-sur-le-Loir and is right on my doorstep, so I ride out two or three times a week. I moved here from the south of England and riding is part of Normandy life. I now compete on my own horse with some success in dressage at a high level. You are never too old to improve!”

 Diana and French husband Bruno acquired Château de la Puisaye in Eure, Normandy, in 2002, renovated it and now run a successful B&B and gite business – plus keep sheep, hens, three horses and a donkey.

“Properties usually have more land in rural France, so keeping a horse or pony is a possibility, but you must find out from your mairie whether you can build or convert an outbuilding into a stable – not always possible because agricultural-use only restrictions are strict in France.

“If you take up equestrian sports in retirement, remember your body is not the same as it was. Falls hurt more and you can do more damage!

“However, I find riding keeps me fit and helps me relax. Dressage is a skill I could have developed in the UK, but it fits in so well with the country lifestyle here. I love it!”

Now try it for yourself...

If you want to try something new, look in your library or médiathèque, which will have contacts for many sports groups. Here are somesites:

Fédération Française des Clubs Alpins et de Montagne (www.ffcam.fr)

A good starting point for more on climbing, hiking, skiing and ski- touring, vélo, télémark, snow-shoeing, Nordic walking, and handisports (mountain sports for the handicapped). There are 420 clubs and the site has links to them all, plus upcoming events and videos.

Fédération Française de Cyclisme (www.ffc.fr)

Contact a club for BMW, road biking, vélo or touring on this site that has a special section for women. For more on cycling, Yorkshireman Richard Peace is the author of four guides to cycling in France, including the Avenue Verte from Dieppe to Paris and, next year, Paris to Mont-Saint-Michel. He recommends electric bikes for older people. “You can buy one for about €500 but hire first to try. Many retirees have found the extra power has rekindled their love of cycling!”

Find bikes to hire, including electric at www.freewheelingfrance.com

Fédération Française d’Equitation

(www.ffe.com)

This site has a complete list of riding schools; just type in your postcode. If you enjoyed riding as a youngster and fancy returning to a gentle, convivial form of the sport, explore France via group pony, horse or carriage trips along the trekking routes which criss-cross the country, (with accommodation en route). Relearn basic equestrian skills first with a group or one to one lesson.

Fédération Française de Canoë-Kayak (www.ffck.org)

With more than 700 clubs and divine rivers and lakes to explore from the Ardèche to the Canal du Midi and the northern canals, this is a great site for info. If you live in Manche area, kayakavranches.fr is hosting an escorted, day-long kayak trip to the Chausey archipelago.

Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre (www.ffrandonnee.fr)

The club’s philosophy is “One day on a footpath, eight days of good health” and the site follows this up with clubs, maps, health and safety information, types of walking and hiking (including Nordic Walking) diet and hydration tips. 

I wish more of my UK patients could be as keen on health

Medical writer, GP and TV health expert Dr Rosemary Leonard is a senior partner in a South London surgery, has a holiday home in the Alps, skis with her two sons and loves to cycle as much as possible.

Rosemary, 60, says: “I am inspired by the French love of sport. I wish more of my UK patients were as enthusiastic! You can do so much to improve your health and mobility in retirement if you get moving.

“For instance, loss of skeletal muscle mass (sarcopenia) is a huge problem in old age, and can cause as many fractures as osteoporosis, as well as a flabby bum! It’s also a major cause of obesity as muscle tissue burns calories more efficiently than fatty tissue.

“Depression is another health problem which can increase and is helped by exercise. Over-60s like me have more fun and live longer if they get active.

“If you have an underlying medical condition you must obviously check with your doctor and be cautious about doing too much too soon.

“But, these days, exercise is prescribed for rehabilitation after heart attacks and other problems, so it could be just what you need to help your recovery.

“Driving everywhere becomes a habit, so as you now have more time, cycle or walk instead.

“My French friends think Londoners are potty to struggle through traffic jams to a sweaty gym when they could be exercising in a local park.

“Sedentary oldies are more susceptible to diabetes, high blood pressure, breathlessness. I know the score, so it makes sense to avoid those problems.

“If you’re are lucky enough to retire to France, copy the locals!”

Anyone starting regular sport should speak to their GP. Events such as cross-country runs, ski tours and cycle rallies have strict health and safety rules. Sports authorities, or fédérations, have affiliated medical advisers and organisers often demand a medical check-up or certificate.

Payment problem hits sport prescription plan

Since March, doctors have been able to prescribe sport or other regular activities for patients suffering long-term illnesses such as heart and lung problems, diabetes and others.

However, although the activities have been shown to improve patients’ quality of life and, in many cases, allow them to reduce their medication, no financing for this activité physique adaptée has been put in place.

Some towns, such as Strasbourg where the idea started and where it has been tested with success since 2012, fund sports facilities and coaches for patients and around 15 other towns do similar.

Funding can also come at a regional level through various health initiatives while associations can also offer activities funded from their own resources.

For many other patients, their mutuelle complementary health insurance may pick up part of the bill (as an example, Maif reimburses €500 per patient each year while CNM offers €200 and SwissLife will pay 50% of the costs).

About 10million people in France suffer from a long-term illness (a list of officially recognised ones is at tinyurl.com/ycxkxpgm) and the sports prescription is written by a GP or specialist who feels a patient will benefit.

Most doctors already recommend that their patients be more active but not many GPs have sufficient sporting knowledge to direct a patient towards the best activity and there is, as yet, no network of sports/medical professionals to give information.

The government’s Conseil National des Activités Physiques et Sportives has costed some of the benefits of excercise, saying that for diabetes it cuts care costs by 50%.

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