Observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community, Ramadan is known to offer many spiritual rewards – and some physical benefits, too.
The concept of fasting has been around for centuries, adopted by many cultures and religions as a spiritual act designed to purify and heal the mind, body and soul. In recent times various fasting diets have become a popular mechanism for weight loss.
There are some key differences between fasting during Ramadan and intermittent fasting, however. Ramadan fasting periods are specified by the sun and moon, whereas intermittent fasting periods are usually dictated by ratios, such as the 16:8 or 5:2 diet. And, a very important difference: fasting during Ramadan means abstaining from water consumption, whereas intermittent fasting allows you to hydrate as required.
Ibaa Al Masri, Rawan Alsaadi, Iman Metwally and Rabab Abdel Baqi are four Les Mills instructors working throughout the region who have successfully balanced fitness and fasting for years. We spoke to them to collect their tips for safe and effective training during the holy month.
Why is Ramadan a good time for health and fitness?
Rawan: “Ramadan is when you follow a routine that is helpful physiologically for the body. If you make good training choices, sleep well and avoid the traditional habits of fried food and loading carbs and sweets, Ramadan will help the body to achieve good results and changes.”
Ibaa: “In Ramadan we learn self-control habits. If we can manage to be away from food for 15-plus hours a day, then we can really control our appetites and avoid too much snacking and munching.”
Iman: “In Ramadan we experience the magic in fasting not only from food but also from bad habits, so it’s important to understand how this holy month can be used to restart not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually.”
Should you change the exercise you do in Ramadan?
Rabab: “In Ramadan you can do all types of training, as you can adjust the intensity and the timing according to what your body can do on that particular day. But because of the long hours of fasting, our bodies can’t perform in the same way they usually do, so I think it’s okay to let your fitness plateau slightly and then build it up after Ramadan.”
Ibaa: “I recommend a mix of strength training, core training and some cardio. Ramadan is not the time to do bodybuilding, as you need more efficient eating patterns. During Ramadan most people want to do shorter workouts, so I teach mostly 30 and 45-minute express classes.”
Rawan: “I aim to maintain my fitness as much as I can, but I cut down the number of my classes and reduce the intensity. I avoid high-intensity training as this helps me recover better and have a comfortable sleep. LES MILLS TONE, BODYPUMP and RPM are good options for full-body strength and cardiovascular fitness during Ramadan. If anyone is lacking motivation I recommend walking or jogging outdoors.”
Iman: “In Kuwait, group fitness numbers spike up during Ramadan as we all motivate each other through this challenging time. Cycling is one of the most popular classes in Ramadan and we add classes to meet the demand. I find Ramadan is a good time to train at a moderate pace, adding more focus on core, mobility and posture.”
What’s the best time to exercise during Ramadan?
Ibaa: “It really depends on the individual. It is possible to do moderate intensity workouts during fasting, but for some it can lead to dehydration (which might subsequently lead to fainting and cause serious injury). At my club, during Ramadan there is a major change in the timetabling of group workouts and classes shift mostly to the afternoon and night because most people prefer to work out after they break their fast, or close to sunset so they can finish their workout and then have a meal.”
Rawan: “I think it is best to do low-impact cardio 30-40 minutes before iftar (the meal after sunset), or as close as possible to iftar in order to best hit the fat-burning zone. I suggest it’s best to avoid high-intensity training. Another option is to do interval training or full body power/strength lifting two to three hours after iftar. In this case, avoid long and very high-intensity training programs so you can recover and maintain a good amount of energy while fasting.”
Rabab: “Typically we cancel morning classes to reduce the risk of dehydration and the drop in blood sugar. Usually classes are scheduled three hours before iftar and we have some classes after iftar.”
Iman: “I love classes right before iftar (between 4.45pm and 5.30pm). I love the energy at this time of the day – it’s the sweet spot for group fitness. Rather than reducing the intensity of the class, we reduce the duration to 45 or 30 minutes, which is key to keeping the energy up. It is best to do low impact cardio 30-40 minutes before iftar, or as close as possible to iftar in order to best hit the fat burning zone.”
How can you ensure sufficient sleep and recovery during Ramadan?
Iman: “Sleep is the biggest challenge we face in Ramadan. Generally speaking, in order to digest the food I’ve eaten, pray, socialize and enjoy the traditions, I won’t get to sleep before 3am. If you go to sleep late, you wake up later than usual. In Muslim countries like the one where I live, work starts later than normal so it gives people the chance to sneak in some extra hours of sleep in the morning.”
Ibaa: “In Ramadan, people rarely get a full 7 to 8 hours sleep. They tend to have 4 to 5 hours between dawn and morning, then they might take a nap between noon and sunset according to their work shift and other commitments.”
Rabab: “It’s not uncommon for sleep to be insufficient and of bad quality, which reflects negatively on exercise performance. So it’s good to focus on sleep and recovery whenever you can.”
Ibaa: “I try to go to bed as early as possible. Although night outings are tempting during Ramadan, I try to keep those to the weekend so I can sleep during the day if I feel I need to. If you sleep well, it will help with your mental focus. In fact, you will be surprised how focused you are when your stomach is not struggling to digest that glazed custard donut!”
What’s the best way to fuel your body in a small window of time?
Ibaa: “Ramadan is a great opportunity to get rid of the cravings, but unfortunately if you are fasting, it’s very common to go crazy with food, drinks and sweets after sunset. Try to avoid this and stick to food in the right portions and eat slowly at Iftar. I try to divide food into portions, as eating it all in one shot can cause bloating, exhaustion and low energy levels.”
Rabab: “It’s encouraged to break the fast with a couple of dates, a bowl of soup, followed by salad. It ‘s better to delay eating the main meal to allow for good digestion.
What are the best foods for suhoor and iftar?
Ibaa: “The pre-dawn meal is when I choose complex carbs such as wholegrain bread and leafy and fibrous vegetables, as they keep you full for longer and offer loads of nutritional value. After sunset, when your body has spent 15-plus hours with not a sip of water, I go for some water-based soup, salad, and grilled protein. I love carbs but I don’t go crazy. A tiny cheese pie satisfies the craving. I also load up on veggies.”
Rabab: “For a healthy Ramadan, consume plenty of liquids and clear soups, as well as salads, fruits and vegetables to ensure you get enough fiber. The main meal should contain carbohydrates (rice or potato), a source of protein and vegetables. It’s recommended that you get enough protein at each meal to help maintain muscle mass.”
Rabab: “There is always some form of dessert after the main meal, but try to avoid too much sweet food, as it will increase the feeling of thirst during the day and it won’t provide sufficient nutrition.”
Ibaa: “I avoid beef, pickles, fatty, salty and fried food and soft drinks –they will only increase thirst, make digestion a struggle, disturb sleep and increase gastric acid. And of course they won’t help with the calories deficit!”
How do you stay hydrated during Ramadan?
Rawan: “Most importantly, you need to know that drinking a billion liters of water at once just before starting your fast is not hydration!”
Ibaa: “Juicy fruits like watermelon are great for getting liquids into your system, potassium-packed bananas and plain Greek yogurt can help you fight thirst, and of course water. I keep drinking water during the night. I have about a glass of water every 30 to 60 minutes.”
More Ramadan tips:
- Ramadan is often a time when people indulge in unhealthy habits, so share your healthy intentions with like-minded friends and family
- Prepare for Ramadan by reducing coffee and carbs in the morning. This will decrease the headaches and low morning energy, especially for the first week of Ramadan
- Find a group class as group training is more fun
- Set reminders and reward yourself at the end of each week
- Avoid high-intensity training
- Try and work out as close as possible to iftar
- Resist the temptation to go crazy with food, drinks and sweets after sunset
- Remember your brain needs 20 minutes to receive the “you are full” message from the stomach, so carefully-portioned food and slow eating is key to avoid overeating
- Getting good quality sleep will help mental focus