Happy, healthy, and joyous Ramadan to you and your loved ones! This year is a bit different from other years in that we’re all likely to be spending a lot more time at home, not visiting and breaking our fast with family and friends, or going to the mosques to pray taraweeh. This doesn’t have to be a negative thing. In fact, it can truly be an opportunity to come closer to Allah, through a removal of many distractions, and more time to spend with our families and with the Quran, one-on-one.
Because we’re not as active overall these days due to the current pandemic lockdown across numerous countries, it is even more important to pay close attention to what we eat, and how we spend our time. Ramadan is always a time to reflect on our spiritual closeness, but it can, and indeed should be a time to connect the spiritual aspects of our deen with the physical, not just in terms of the fast, but of how we endeavor to keep healthy and fit through exercise and nutrition.
According to statistics gathered by Amina Khan, the founder of Amanah Fitness (our AM Woman of the Month), for her Ramadan Reset Program, despite the fact that a vast majority of Muslims surveyed (89%) believe that exercise is important, only about 10% of them actually report exercising during Ramadan.
I sat down to discuss this subject with my friend, Aya Mohsen, over the phone (we have stay-at-home orders around our parts as well, after all). Aya is a fitness coach at the premier sports complex in the Maritime region of Canada, as well as at the largest University in the region. Right now, she serves her clients by giving personal and group live zoom classes. I asked her if she found this statistic to be reflected in her experience both here in Canada, and in Saudi Arabia. She agreed, “About 90% of women I worked with regularly before Ramadan would take Ramadan off.”
The reality is that, during Ramadan, time is short, and people are very busy with meal preparation, taraweeh prayers, waking up in the middle of the night for suhoor, and then work. There is actually a very small window of time to exercise, and maybe people would rather just not bother. But this year, with the Covid-19 quarantine, many of us are working from home and are not able to attend mosques for taraweeh prayers, so we have a lot more time on our hands.
Truth is, all you need is half an hour a day. “I always recommend to take the first two days of Ramadan off, just to allow the body to adjust to the new schedule, but then it would be a good idea to get back into exercising,” Aya suggests. “All you need is half an hour to an hour, and you can break it up in segments!”
The benefits of intermittent fasting have been studied extensively, and the science points at numerous positive health outcomes, from engaging in the type of fast that we do in Ramadan, as well as the sunnah of maintaining two days per week throughout the year. Many hadiths point at Mondays and Thursdays as being preferable, but not obligatory, according to Sunan al-Tirmidhi. Among these benefits, is the maintenance of a healthy body weight, improved hearth health, reduction in hypertension and diabetes, increased metabolism, and many others.
Ironically, as Amina Khan has noted in her survey. a staggering 60% of people report gaining weight during Ramadan! I shared this statistic with Aya, and she chuckled: “Yes, that sounds about right! But you know it’s got nothing to do with the fasting part, but everything to do with the adoption of bad habits during this blessed month!” She explained further that, “People eat too much; they turn the iftar into a party, with large serving sizes, unhealthy food choices, and constant eating throughout the night. And they stop moving!” It all adds up to the right combination that brings about a perfect storm!
So, what can we do to prevent this, you might ask. The truth is that if we practiced the Sunnah of the Prophet (SAWS), we could avoid a lot of this! According to Abu Dawood in al-Tirmidhi, the Prophet (SAW) used to break his fast with dates, which are sweet, and/or water), as suggested in the dua that we recite prior to breaking our fast: “Dhahaba al-‘zama’ wa abtallat al-‘urooq wa thabata al-ajr in sha Allaah,” (“The thirst is gone, the veins have been moistened and the reward is assured, if Allaah wills”) After breaking fast in this way, he would pray. After prayer we can eat our meal.
This pause between the sweetness of the dates, which sends a message to thebrain that nutrients are on the way, and the actual iftar meal, signals to the body to be satisfied. Taking our time allows our body to adjust, and instead of panicking into overeating, it only takes what it needs. This gap in time also leaves us with plenty of time to fit in some exercise.
Whether cardiovascular endurance, high or low intensity interval training (strength training), stretching (like in some yoga practices), exercise strengthens the body, and gives it the energy to be able to do more during the day. Think of it as an investment: you put in the effort, and it does seem quite difficult, but it will benefit you in the end. The more consistent you are in your exercise routine, the better.
Exercise helps maintain a healthy body weight, lowers cholesterol, improves heart health, and builds muscle, which in turn takes some of the burden off of you, and eases just about everything you do. But the benefits aren’t just physical, they are psychological as well! Exercising releases endorphins, which cause us to relax, and lowers stress levels. All this is conducive to more concentration, and attention to our salah and all of our spiritual duties.
This particular window of time is especially beneficial if you’re hoping to lose weight during Ramadan. Since your body has been fasting for about twelve hours, it will have already used up the bulk of your stored energy. Engaging in cardio exercise at the end of the fasting period will speed up the depletion of stored fat, which you can replenish with healthy foods after maghrib. Exercising at this time is NOT recommended for people who are not used to exercising. If you do not already exercise on the regular, but would like to begin, start with three workouts per week during non-fasting hours.
If you regularly exercise, are organized, and have the option to do so, you could do all of your preparations early, and exercise just before maghrib, which means you would break your fast right after your workout. HIIT (high intensity interval training) is the best form of exercise to engage in to help you build or maintain muscle strength and reduce or maintain your weight.
Muscle mass is known to burn fat even during rest periods, so building up your muscle mass will help you burn calories more efficiently. However, when engaging in strength training exercises like HIIT, it’s important to have protein within three hours of your workout, so it is advisable to keep this sort of training near a time when you are able to eat.
Another option would be to do a quick workout after breaking your fast, but before your meal (if you break your fast with dates and milk, water, or yogurt, and leave your meal for later). This means you could warm up your food while you do a quick 15-30 minute pilates or yoga session, and then sit for your meal.
Pilates is an amazing form of light, low– impact exercise that engages most of your muscles (your core in particular) and brings up your heart rate, without having to jump around or lift heavy weights. It’s quite amazing, and a little goes a long way!
Alternatively, you could break your fast, pray, eat your iftar, allow for your food to be digested (so just after taraweeh prayers, approximately), and then instead of going back to eat, do your workout. At this point there really would be no difference between this workout and the regular workout you’d do outside of Ramadan: you’re satiated, relaxed, have time, and can hydrate in-between sets, so go all out if you want to!
A fourth option would be to exercise before suhoor, giving your suhoor the double duty of replenishing your body with appropriate nutrients, and hydration from your workout, and giving you some reserve for the rest of the day. If you do choose to workout at this time, you should ensure that you have a very solid suhoor, with plenty of liquids, protein, good fats, and complex carbohydrates (all of which digest slowly and are ideal nutrition for after a workout). Make sure to read our upcoming article on suhoor for more details!
Any of the above options are available to everyone, whether they’re in the habit of exercising or not, except for exercising while fasting. If you’re not a regular exerciser, then perhaps limit your workouts to non-fasting times, and only exercise three times per week to prevent exhaustion and ensure that you can recover well in–between workouts.
A good recovery is important to be able to maintain proper form. Form is very important when exercising, especially if it’s your first time, and even more so if you do not have an expert near you to watch and advise you.
Give yourself flexibility and be kind to yourself, exercise is supposed to improve your health, not stress you out! f you already exercise regularly, you don’t need to stop just because you’re fasting. You can just take a couple of days off to adjust, then pick any of the above time slots, and choose the one that best suits you.
If you workout during fasting times, you might want to decrease the intensity or length of your workout. But, if you choose to work out after having broken your fast, and digested your food, then you can engage in the same intensity that you normally maintain outside of Ramadan.
For a quick overview of all pros and cons of various times to exercise during Ramadan, check out Amanah Fitness’s video on this very subject.
The only caveat here is that you have to make sure you’re drinking enough water in your non-fasting window, especially if you’re going to work out. It’s not a good idea to drink a lot all at once, but rather space your cups all along the window from iftar to suhoor, because your body can only absorb so much at once.
Whatever your body doesn’t need will flow right through you, so don’t be satisfied with drinking all your water needs with one meal. Break it up, having a couple of cups of water at iftar, before or after taraweeh, before going to sleep, and at suhoor. Generally speaking, this should cover your water needs for the day.
Shireen Hakeem RDN shares in her article, “Top 5 Commonly Asked Ramadan Health Questions, Answered!” on the Amanah Fitness website that she simply calculates the amount of water in relation to the number of calories you require each day. For example, the average woman requires a daily intake of 1200-1500 calories, which is equivalent to 1200-1500 ml of water (6-8 ounces) per day. This varies depending on your activity level, age, and weight, but the above ratio is a good indicator. If you’re not sure, aim to drink about 10 cups of water per day, and that should have you covered.
Keeping hydrated will wardoff fatigue during your fasting hours, allow you to work out, and prevent you from overeating. It is, therefore, a good idea to make sure you hydrate regularly during non-fasting times. Of course, you may drink tea, milk, and other beverages that would count towards your total liquid intake, but keep in mind that these often have added calories, sugars, some nutrients, and even caffeine. Do drink these sparingly, and whenever you have the choice, opt for water instead.
They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While iftar is our breakfast during Ramadan. That doesn’t mean we should forego suhoor. As reported in Al-Bukhaari (1923) and Muslim (1059), the Prophet (SAWS) said: “Eat suhoor for in suhoor there is blessing.” We can only assume that the nutrients we consume in the last meal before the fast will have a significant effect on our bodies throughout the fast. It follows, then, that choosing our suhoor meals to benefit our bodies most would be wise.
For suhoor ideas check out Amina Khan’s 2020 edition of her ebook, “Ramadan Reset.” All of the book’s profits go to feed the needy (the rewards never end!). Also, stay tuned to AMWomen Magazine, as I’ll be sharing some suhoor ideas on here as well!
Finally, a very important element of maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle, especially during Ramadan, is getting enough sleep. During sleep your mind and your body rest and regenerate. It’s crucial, particularly when you engage in unusual activity such as fasting or exercising, that you give your body a chance to recover. You will not reap all the benefits of fasting and exercising if you don’t allow yourself downtime, as your body will become stressed and overworked. Just like you need nutritious food to fuel your body so it doesn’t turn on itself, you also need adequate sleep to give your muscles time to recover.
Remember that Ramadan is a month to recommit and to treasure our relationship with Allah, to reconnect with our ibadah and be grateful for the blessings we are given. Treat your body with respect, nourish it with wholesome foods, and challenge yourself to be the best version of yourself. Exercise can help you keep motivated and give you the energy to do everything else you want to do to improve your iman. Ramadan opens the door to unimaginable baraka, and if we use our time wisely, we can gain much insight and strength that we can then carry over through the rest of the year, Inshallah!
If you’d like to find out more about Aya Mohsen, head on over to my blog, where you can find my interview with her https://cafecaterpillar.blog/2020/04/13/aya/ . If you’re interested in checking out her zoom classes, you can find her on Instagram (@ayamofit). you can find her on IG @ayamohsen126, and read more about her at https://cafecaterpillar.blog/2020/04/13/aya/).
To learn more about Amina Khan and her online workout program, you can read our Q&A interview with her, as we featured her as our AM Woman of the Month for April, and find more information on her website. You can also check out her Ramadan Reset Guidebook that is filled with 70+ healthy ethnic recipes, a 30-day dietitian’s meal plan, and a 6-week fitness program, here. Stay up- to-date on the latest with Amanah Fitness by following them on Instagram @amanahfitness.
How do you stay fit and healthy during Ramadan? Let us know in the comments below!