Brazil is a country of paradoxes. It feels like it’s in the middle of this momentous change, where lifestyles here are stangely often Westernized (read Americanized) and yet very Latin at the same time. My observations in this post are of course limited to the Brazilians I have met through work so let it be known it’s not representative.

Brazilians drink to good health – the word is Saudé! every time you raise your glass of Choppe or Caipirinha. Saudé translates as health, and when you think about it, really there is nothing else you’d rather drink to. Because, health is everything. Yet the hard working Paulistanas can’t seem to manage to find time to really focus on health.

For one, if you thought the women down here all look like Gisele Bundchen, you’re in for a rude shock. They look, very, well, normal. (The great bods are in Rio).

Let’s start with the meals. Brazilian meal times are the opposite of American. Well, on weekdays breakfast is equally sidelined. For Brazilians, the most important meal time is lunch. And this is true on working days,even on days when you’re breathing down a fire hose, when you know you’re not going to go home until midnight. In the US, if you were that busy, you plan to bring/order lunch, eat at your desk and bang away on the keyboard so you can get out a decent hour and go home, to your loved ones or your couch. But here that’s not an option. You have to go to lunch with your team, and you have to spend two hours eating – one Brazilian even told me, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to eat lunch, the amount of work I have to do is constant and large – so I might as well enjoy lunch!

Eat what you may ask? A full meal, with disproportionate representation of meat, fat and carbs (oh, they love their cheese here) and very litte vegetables. Lunch is not a sandwich or a salad as most people in the States would opt for, so that they don’t fall asleep at their desks. No, Brazilians will pull out the stops at lunch – it’s a large piece of grilled meat (or several, if you go to those all-you-can-eat places), rice, beans, small salad, a drink, dessert and coffee. Of course coffee, because without that coffee you’d be sleep-walking back to your desk. And several more cups of coffee through the day to keep you awake after the soporific, humongous meal! Come to think of it, Brazil is the only place you’ll get absolutely stuffed on sushi thanks to rodizió.

And then you walk back after a lunch at a very slow pace because you’re half asleep or you really dont want to get back to work. Or sometimes you take a taxi, lest it be more than a 10-12 minute walk. And sit at your desk for the next 6-8 hours. Some of the people at work do make an effort to go to the gym or play soccer, but many of the junior people work until 8 – 9 pm (have to make up for the time lost at lunch and innumerable coffee breaks) or go to university for various numerous professional degrees they keep studying for. In the States, woe upon you should you schedule calls after 6pm. In Brazil, it’s totally normal for folks to go to client meetings and return to the office at 7pm to continue working. So, no time to work out on a weekday for sure.

And then comes the fact that São Paulo is not really a walk-friendly city. You can walk, at the cost of your shoes. No shoes (especially those purchased here) can make it beyond 3 months if you choose to walk. I spent R$291 on 2 pairs of shoes and they’re both broken.

However, the city does put in an effort for its citizens’ saudé and plenty of people will be seen using these. SP’s central areas have a bike lane which is dedicated ONLY on Sundays. So on Sunday mornings scores of recreational and more than recreational bikers take to the streets, often with kids in tow and use the dedicated bike lanes for about 5 hours of the morning. The city is also dotted with several parks, the largest one of them being Park Ibirapuera with a 3k paved loop around well-landscaped trees and little ponds and lakes. The park also has a dedicated bike lane. On weekends, especially on a sunny day, its absolutely packed with runners or families enjoying the outdoors. However the “beautiful” people can mostly be spotted in the mornings on weekdays – it’s almost a causal relationship – they’re good looking because they run in the morning but because they run in the mornings they’re beautiful. Eitherway, it’s GREAT eye candy. Definitely incentive to wake up early for a good run before work. The city also has other parks and this is not only great but necessary because, not everyone can afford the uber-expensive gyms in town (north of R$300 per month) and not everyone should hazard running on the streets because the auto traffic barely obeys auto rules, so forget about pedestrian safety.

And not everyone can run on the boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean in Rio.

Rio is a city that couldn’t be more different from SP. For one, its GORGEOUS! SP has its own charms but for all purposes it’s a concrete jungle. No its the definition of the concrete jungle. Rio on the other hand has beautiful beaches and when there are beaches to be enjoyed in great weather, you need to have beach appropriate bodies. If you’re Brazilian you won’t be caught dead in gringo bottoms, the Brazilian bikini bottoms or the male “Sunga” (= speedos) covers not much more than a thong . So naturally, there’s some pressure to keep fit because you’re as often likely to be seen in beach wear as in office wear. I had a chance to run in Rio when I visited and it will forever be one of the most gorgeous runs I’ve had. I ran from Botofogo till Pão de Acucar’s lift and then ran up the hill next to Sugarloaf along the rocky Atlantic coast.  Absolutely breathtaking. Needless to say it was not a timed run because I often stopped to admire the view.

So, overall – like in most developing countries, good health and fitness has income-elastic demand in Brazil. It’s expensive – in terms of time and in terms of money. The labor laws mandate that companies provide additional compensation to employees for lunch (so everyone has a lunch card and a groceries card with a stipulated amount per month) so no incentive remains to skimp on lunch. In the US, we pay for our own meals but gym memberships etc. are not as expensive as here, relative to income levels. Add to that longer working hours and commute times. So it’s difficult for the average Paulistana to look like Gisele Bundchen. But if you want to party, come to São Paulo.  They work hard and definitely party harder. Naturally, a lot of opportunities to raise your glass to Saudé here!


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