The French get their taste for sugar early on. The normal gôuter (the small snack for kids after school) as I've seen it here in the south is often pain au chocolate (either a factory-made soft roll with chocolate which the grocery stores stock in large quantities, or if you're lucky, a fresh bakery-made flaky croissant with chocolate--it's small, but it's sweet). My own kids marvel at some of their classmates' obsessions with candy and soda, and the food young rugby and soccer players eat between and after matches at tournaments is astonishingly junky. It's a lot of sugar and carbohydrates and fat. The upside is that these foods are generally not made with high fructose corn syrup, like in the U.S. (even the soda tastes different here), but sugar isn't exactly good for you either, nor is the processing of natural ingredients into food products like Nutella (the hazelnut chocolate spread, which one of my sons really likes). In November, the government began pursuing a Nutella-tax, on palm oil, as one way to reduce the consumption of saturated fat-laden foods in France.
One response to the concerns about the deteriorating physical conditioning of the French is a public health campaign similar to the American Let's Move initiative led by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama. The French version is called Manger Bouger and the goals are: bien manger (to eat healthfully) and bouger plus (to move more). Living in a relatively temperate climate in the south of France, it's easy to bouger, even though it took a while to discover where people exercise and what they do. This is not a country of large-scale, 24-hour health clubs as my spouse discovered (some are even closed on the weekends and evenings!). But if I get up early enough on a weekday, or take a late weekend afternoon walk, I see Aixois going for jogs or walks around town or in one larger city park with running trails. Every time we've gone for a swim, the lap lanes at the city pool near us have been crowded. More recently I've discovered the popular randonée (hiking). The parking lots at trailheads in Provence are frequently crowded in the afternoons and on the weekends, and there are people of all shapes and backgrounds hiking. Numerous hiking clubs around the area also organize weekly or monthly hikes at the calanques on the coast or in the rocky fortresses and canyons further inland. Luckily for me, a Finnish friend and I have formed a casual hiking club of two, and we have walked near the dams that supply drinking water in our area, and below, I'm pictured on a trail near the base of Aix's rocky Mount Sainte Victoire. It's only during the summer that hiking is difficult as the trails are opened for limited times due to the very dry conditions, the heat, and the fire danger. By that time, I suppose, we should all have mangé'd and bougé'd enough to get ourselves in shape for the beach or the pool, the only really comfortable places to hang out during the broiling summer months.