PARIS (Reuters Life!) - The French may love to look good but few are willing to work up a sweat over it.
Despite increasing awareness of the benefits of healthy eating and physical exercise, going to the gym in France is still a niche activity that has yet to capture the mainstream.
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 gym goers, 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.
The figure doesn't include France's numerous community fitness groups, or "associations," which are entitled to government subsidies and tempt many consumers with cheap prices despite their often unsophisticated facilities.
Even taking into account this potential numbers gap, mass-market chains Club Med Gym and Fitness First say the $2 billion French market is a particularly tough slog. Property and staff are costly while competition from other sports is fierce.
"Football, tennis and cycling, those are the top three activities of the French," says Nadege Gaillard, marketing director for Club Med Gym, a Paris-focused brand that has not opened a single new club in nearly a decade. It is due to open a new venue in Paris in 2011.
Although rival Fitness First has had more luck opening clubs in and out of Paris, it is feeling the heat from the growth of no-frills centers that are stealing customers from pricier venues in a stagnating market.
"No services, no staff, that's what's growing ... It's a lot simpler just to open a shoebox and throw in some machines," says Michel Parada, who heads Fitness First's French operations.
Working out also has an image problem in France, where few celebrities seem keen to publicly endorse the mucky business of sweating and straining on a cardio machine.
Even the sight of President Nicolas Sarkozy in running shoes jogging after his election in 2007 proved too much for some.
"I would rather see the president in his suit than in his sweat," said philosopher Alain Finkielkraut at the time.
Consumers seem to prefer the aesthetic appeal of creams and cosmetics that claim to have slimming properties, according to Christophe Anandson of the IHRSA fitness club association.
"The credulity of the French isn't favoring the growth of the fitness market," he said.
For those who can afford it, there is also designer gym "L'Usine," a chain of three discreetly chic clubs in Paris and Geneva, which is said to boast singer Lenny Kravitz and actress Melanie Laurent as clients.
L'Usine co-founder Patrick Rizzo says the club's high prices, luxury layout and upscale equipment serve a "niche" and manage to rise above the troubles of the mass market in France.
But even he thinks there is a limit to luxury gym growth in Paris and is eyeing possible expansion in Italy or the U.S.
Some industry figures believe the French market will have a brighter future once the government does more to promote working out as a health measure that could potentially save the healthcare system a lot of time and money.
Gyms could also do more to respond to French consumer tastes, says consultant Hoffman. He does not think low-cost gyms will be able to hold on to a broad client base, as most French consumers are not experts and need assistance to work out.
Just as Starbucks and McDonald's have had to fit their menu to France's cultural preferences, clubs could change as well.
"You've got to get into the French psyche...Maybe a cafe, or a little area for food," Hoffman says.
"But (the problem) is bigger than that. I don't think it can come from the clubs alone. It's getting people more aware of their wellbeing."
Editing by Steve Addison