CommunityHealthYes it’s safe to exercise while fasting during Ramadan

Is it safe to exercise while fasting? From the elite athlete on down, the experts say yes -- but the answer as to how much is highly individual.
Mark Lomas Mark Lomas14-05-201917 min
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hijab exercising

For those looking to continue their exercise routines – from amateur through to elite levels – Ramadan presents a number of challenges, including the physical and emotional impact of fasting during daylight hours. This raises inevitable question: it is a good idea to work out at all?

That dilemma is actually a pretty straightforward one to resolve: research has proven time and again that exercising during Ramadan should be actively encouraged. A 2012 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, The effects of Ramadan intermittent fasting on athletic performance, reasoned that the key to preserving physical fitness during Ramadan is “maintenance of exercise load and intensity at levels appropriate to the fasting athlete’s ability.”

The joint project between the Tunisian Research Laboratory, the University of Dundee and the Singapore Sports Council also explored the best time of day to exercise, concluding that heavy training should take place in the early evening so that rehydration can happen immediately after exercise, as well as recommending — likely to the delight of many — that regular daytime naps can aid performance.

These observations tally with the reality seen by Dr Ramzy Ross, head of high performance and strategy at the Up and Running Medical Centre in Dubai. Dr Ross, who has previously worked with a range of high-profile clients, including the UAE Army and the Ethiopian long-distance running team, stresses that the ideal way to exercise during Ramadan can vary significantly from individual to individual.

“Of course there are some considerations in working out when fasting, in that you’re having a long period when you’re not consuming the energy needed to help you exercise effectively,” Dr Ross explained. “This can be particularly concerning if you have any underlying conditions affecting blood sugar, like diabetes.

“However, in most cases, where planned appropriately, the benefits outweigh the risks and I would avoid abandoning exercise completely during Ramadan. There is evidence to show that exercising at lower intensity levels following a fasted period can help increase fat metabolism as a key source of energy production — in order to help your body function and exercise.

“Some people will exercise in this way, before breaking the fast, but others prefer to wake up when the sun is still down in the early hours of the morning so they can eat and drink immediately post session before heading into the fast. The latter is often a good time to factor in high-intensity workouts, particularly as your energy stores will have restored.

“Different people respond in different ways so the most important thing is to plan the day according to your needs. It depends on the individual — their likes, dislikes and how determined they are to maintain an active healthy lifestyle during this period.”

Ramadan is observed by elite and amateur athletes alike but is there any substantial difference between how it affects Mo Salah and Mo, the salesman from Deira?

“For elite sportsmen and women whose lives revolve around training, I think Ramadan is of course going to be more challenging. Elite athletes have got rigid schedules, timelines, commitments that are often worked out in detail months in advance. Changes can really impact how they progress over that four to five-week period.

“In some respects, fasting may not be ideal from a high performance perspective and there is more of a focus on minimizing regression than maximizing performance. It’s definitely more sensitive for somebody at the elite level as amateurs can afford to make those adjustments and experiment more with what works for them, without being hampered by potential short-term drops in performance.”

Decisions about what to eat and when to eat it are magnified in Ramadan. Dubai-based nutrition and life coach Victoria Tipper often sees a surge of questions as the month approaches.

“Most people lose some muscle mass during Ramadan because it is difficult to train in the exact same way,” Tipper says. “But you just need to make sure that, to rebuild that muscle, you are getting adequate protein. Most people should aim for at least 0.8-1g per kilogram of body weight, this increases if you’re doing more strength or resistance training, then you want 1.5g to 2g per kilo of body weight.

“If you’re doing more cardio stuff, you need to make sure you’re getting in enough carbs but definitely because you’ve been fasting all day, you need to be across all of the food groups — your proteins, fats, and carbs.

“There is no right time to eat and exercise. I’m seeing more and more people break their fast with something small — like a banana and some dates — before going on to train, but others train and then break the fast straight after exercise. It’s personal preference.”

With traditional iftar food often heavy and sugary, Tipper believes it is vital that people are a little more mindful about what they are consuming during Ramadan.

“White rice, white bread and high-sugar foods, even things like fruit juices, should be avoided as they raise your blood sugar too quickly. Going for things like quinoa, sweet potato, butternut squash, beans and lentils instead will be better — the complex carbohydrates that will give you more of that slow release.

“Digestion is very important as you have a much smaller window for eating. People are often tempted to wolf down food at iftar, but eating slowly is important. Some people will suffer with things like constipation through Ramadan so getting enough fiber is key. Keeping the skin on your vegetables, adding things like chia seeds or flaxs seeds.

“Vegetables provide loads of antioxidants, which is really important when you’re training. Beetroot can be particularly good for people who are working out, because that helps to increase nitric oxide in the body. That increases blood flow so we deliver more oxygen to our muscles, enhancing performance.”

Beyond Ramadan, intermittent fasting has become an increasingly popular lifestyle choice in recent years. Many non-Muslims use Ramadan as an entry point — fasting in solidarity with friends and colleagues — before continuing after it finishes.

The health benefits of fasting have been extensively explored, with biogerontologist Dr Valter Longo among those to have studied how it can help tackle autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

“Dr Valter is one of the leading researchers into fasting and his work is really exciting,” Tipper said. “We already know that fasting boosts our brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which in turn improves brain function. That is now being applied to other diseases.

“Personally, I’m a big fan of intermittent fasting. But we all have this bio-individuality so it doesn’t work for everyone. If you are fasting for the first time, this should be done under the guidance of a medical professional where possible.

“Just like those observing Ramadan, in the first few days people often don’t feel so great but afterwards, if people are doing it the correct way they actually feel more energized and they have this kind of like clarity and improved focus.”

Like Tipper, Dr Ross has witnessed plenty of impressive results from intermittent fasting. But while positive physical and mental changes are often forthcoming, he believes it is something that should be followed cautiously.

“Intermittent fasting can be very effective if done appropriately for those who are looking to get leaner or drop their body fat – trying to optimize their body composition. There is new research being done all the time and we are always looking to get a clearer picture of how exercising in a fasted state impacts you in terms of your physiology, your metabolism, your microbiology.

“It’s applicable across many disciplines of sports. For example, I have a UFC fighter right now who has been on an intermittent program to drop his body fat down to single digits. We’ve also been working with an Irish powerlifter who is a world-record holder in her age group. Then you’ll also see a lot of footballers try intermittent fasting as they get back into pre-season — to get their body composition back to where it was.

“Just like those who observe Ramadan, whether elite or amateur, the key advice is for the individual to listen to their body and seek appropriate guidance if they are to achieve successful results.”

Featured photo: Shutterstock

Mark Lomas

Mark Lomas

Mark is a Dubai-based writer who has couch-surfed through Ukraine, broken bread with football fans in Basra, and appeared on a boxing reality TV show in the UAE – all in pursuit of a good story. Or at least an average anecdote.