Each time Ramadan rolls around throughout all seasons, we are faced with the dilemma of how to keep our fitness and nutrition plans on track. Many assume that fasting breaks down tissues and that Ramadan will cause a net loss of muscle and concurrent increase in fat; however, there is evidence that fasting actually makes the body more efficient, subhanAllah. We know that proper hydration, nutrient consumption, and exercise tailored to optimize the fat burning and muscle building hormones can truly make this the best opportunity for one’s body to be fit. Fitness professionals today are committed to stoking the metabolic rate by frequent consumption of proteins and nutritiously potent meals. Research by I-Min Lee, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), epidemiologist in the Division of Preventive Medicine at BWH, and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, also advocates that in order to maintain our present weight, we should plan on 420 minutes of exercise per week. Dr. Lee’s findings were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Health experts contend that monitoring consumption, as well as daily activity, are essential to maintaining optimal weight and body composition; yet, contrary to that we find many Muslims tending to over indulge in larger than normal quantities of food, snacks, and desserts, as if to compensate for the day’s self-discipline. While we are mindful of the less fortunate as we fast and give zakat during Ramadan, we should also balance celebration of our blessings and material comforts with a prudent attitude toward avoiding wasteful excess. “Oh Children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer: eat and drink: but waste not by excess, for Allah loves not the wasters” (Quran 7:31).
So what is a tired and famished devout Muslim observing the pre-dawn to sunset fasting ritual to do during the 29 – 30 days of Ramadan each year?
It seems that when we’ve finally disciplined ourselves to eat and exercise as advised, we get derailed. While fasting we are drawn and tired, we attempt to conserve our energies for necessary chores, errands, work, and food preparation. Then in the night, if we are lucky, we attend additional prayers of taraweeh at the mosque and take extra time to read from the Holy Qur’an.
In addition to all this, many Muslims confess that after fasting all day—and these summer days in the Northern Hemisphere are long—we indulge ravenously in large portions of traditional heavy cuisine and an inordinate amount of desserts. The result is usually an increase in weight and girth, and a respectively inverse decline in fitness and activity.
Those with perhaps weaker levels of faith, or lacking insight to the multi-faceted benefits of fasting are inclined to justify cheating on the obligation to fast. “Oh you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint”(Quran 2:183). Allah knows best, but there is hope and a solution for the resolute. This blessed month of Ramadan can bring optimal gains in health.
Certified fitness instructor, John Ali Rodgers, holds a degree in Kinesiology and Nutrition, and he advises that hydration is key to optimal metabolism efficiency. Rodgers knows that it is best not to work out while fasting because muscles can breakdown from a significant rise in the stress hormone cortisol. Also, dehydration of just 3% causes a 12% loss in strength. He also related, “The wisdom in Islam is never ending. We break our fast with dates and water, but if you investigate this nutritionally, you will see that dates are very unique in their nutrient content. They contain very high levels of potassium, a key re-hydration mineral and a special carbohydrate blend that enhances hydration above and beyond water alone.” He has suggested the following guide so you can read Qur’an, pray, eat, and keep your metabolic engines still burning all month during Ramadan. You may have to switch to a 24 hour gym or just take it outside at night, but here is the way:
- When breaking fast at Iftar, at sunset, begin with three dates, water, and eat a nutritious meal with protein, fibrous raw vegetables and plenty of liquid. Do not overeat! Treat your body gently after the fast, and know that more nutrition is coming.
- During taraweeh prayers, whether you do 8 or 20 rakat, have a protein bar at the midpoint with a quantity of water. You can also include a complex carbohydrate meal to ready the body for working out. Eating small meals can speed up the metabolic rate, nutrient absorption, and stabilize insulin and blood sugar levels.
- 1 ½ – 2 hours later, drink a whey protein shake. Consult a Protein calculator to know how much you need. Here is one: http://www.howmuchprotein.com/daily-protein-intake.php
- After taraweeh, go to work out doing up to 2 days of moderate cardio work each week and concentrating on weight training during the other days. This helps preserve lean muscle. If it is too late at night, or you cannot access a gym, the next best time to weight train is about 1 hour after Iftar when the body has absorbed nutrition and hydration.
- The early morning meal, Suhoor, should have some high quality protein or a protein shake, carbohydrates, and essential “good fats” that have fat burning and muscle building properties. Be sure to have enough liquid and a bit of cucumber or other quenching vegetable before you begin another fast. This is also when a multi-vitamin is advised. Rogers recommends extra vitamin C and states that doing cardio before suhoor is the best time for maximum fat loss. A brisk walk or 30-45 minutes on the treadmill is ideal after some tea, coffee, or green tea to get you up and going.
Whatever your exercise choices, just keep up some kind of movement, and carry some weight to maintain muscle and bone mass. Be wary about over eating those bad-empty calorie temptations while socializing, and may Allah guide and bless His servants. The Messenger of Allah (blessings be upon him) said, “He who fasts with the intentions of pleasing Allah, his reward is with his Lord.”
Susan Labadi is Project Coordinator of the American Halal Association, President of Genius School, Inc~A Professional Development company, a principal of ActionNet Trade, Inc., and a health and fitness advocate.