France’s generous healthcare system, its cultural preference for outdoor sports and its lack of affordable good-quality clubs are seen as reasons behind the country’s low rate of gymgoers, even relative to laid-back neighbors Spain or Italy.

“It appears to me that more people are sitting in cafes smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee than working out … the French don’t see fitness as a lifestyle,” says American-born fitness consultant Fred Hoffman, who has lived in Paris for 21 years.

Only 5.4 percent of French people belonged to a health club in 2008, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, compared with 9.5 percent for Italy, 11.9 percent for the United Kingdom and 16.6 percent for Spain.