Be Fit for Ramadan

By Ayesha Akhtar, MPH, CPT

O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous. (Surah Al-Baqarah: Verse183)

With Ramadan approaching in just a few weeks, many of you, like myself, are wondering how to maintain a level of fitness throughout the month of Ramadan, so as not to lose endurance and muscle tone (neither are completely true). Fear not! There are several habits you can adopt throughout your day, and can maybe even enhance the spiritual aspect of fasting by giving you a little extra energy here and there. I’ve share below some of my own lessons learned. Feel free to share your own!

For my readers who are not familiar with the logistics of Ramadan, allow me to share. Fasting for 30 days during the month of Ramadan (one month on the lunar calendar) is one of the five main pillars of Islam. This year, Ramadan begins at the end of June. Physically and mentally able Muslims (there are several exemptions) will fast from dawn to sunset, abstaining from food, water, smoking, and sex during those times. At sunset, it is tradition to break fast with a date, which is essentially a superfood, water and the company of others. It is such a beautiful time of togetherness and camaraderie. Many faiths participate in fasting on some level. The first few days are tough, then your body gets into a groove, the last 10 days are hard, knowing the end is near. It is a time for physical cleansing, and spiritual resetting. Many will attend the Mosque for prayers more often than, others prefer to stay at home. We end the month of Ramadan with Eid ul Fitr, a celebration lasting three days, with gift giving galore! 


What happens to your body when you fast? Be prepared to answer questions you will be asked about why you are fasting in the middle of summer without food or water..

  • Blood flow to the digestive system slows down, allowing for oxygenated blood to work on other systems
  • Detoxing throughout the blood stream (stomach, kidneys, removal of cholesterol)
  • The body will learn how to burn fat for energy using three different systems: available glycogen (stored carbs), adipose tissue (stored fat), and eventually protein / amino acids (muscle tissue).
  • Lowered blood pressure and blood sugar
  • Cellular repair
  • Human growth hormone levels increase (which increases metabolism and allows you to continue burning fat)
  • Bodyweight and fat mass may decrease (stay away from those pakoras!)

Fitness guidelines:

  • Put hard core training on hold. Now is not the time to set a PR.
  • Consider what your fitness goals are for Ramadan, and keep everything in perspective.
    • Be fit and mobile enough to pray and stand up late for Taraweeh (if desired) and have energy to enjoy the fast
  • If going to the gym makes you feel uncomfortable, then don’t do it. Gather what you need at home. Suggestions:
    • Set of dumbbells
    • Resistance band
    • Jump rope
  • Focus on high reps and body weight resistance, or low weights. This will be your fitness cycle for toning, not muscle strength or hypertrophy
    • It is not wise to perform any heavy weight training while you are fasting, you can potentially contribute to muscle tearing and breakdown
  • Be consistent and conservative.
  • Do something every day: walk, jump rope, climb stairs, cycle, light jog.
  • Sleep, as much as possible.

Focus on your nutrition:

    1. Greens
      • No need to go into full detail here on the dozens of benefits of leafy greens, so whether you load up your plate with a monster green salad, or a green juice / smoothie, eat up! Change them up to break the monotony; they are a clean way to break your fast.
      • Spirulina. A super food boasting 65% protein and complete amino acids. It is high in chlorophyll which also helps remove toxins from the body. This year, I take spirulina tablets (I’ve also loved EnergyBits tablets – see my review). I love them for energy and started taking them throughout my triathlon training. They provided me with sustained energy and suppressed hunger. You can read more about them here.
    2. Electrolytes
      • Nuun tablets. For the last few years, until last year, I have experienced a mild case of “restless leg syndrome”. I was never officially diagnosed, but the symptoms were telling. Perhaps my legs missed running? I had tingly legs all day and night, was irritable because I could not sleep, and experienced a constant need to keep moving or else the pain would ensue. It was an awful way to spend the day fasting. I researched symptoms and realized I was significantly low in electrolytes. Enter Nuun electrolyte tablets. Life changing! Every night at iftar I broke fast with water and a tablet and also drank another 16-24 oz before bedtime. Life changing, I tell you!
      • Potassium: dates, bananas, figs. Consume them.
      • Magnesium: a must.
    3. Smoothies / Juices
      • Whether you decide to juice or make a smoothie, quite simply, this is one of the best ways to maximize nutrition in Ramadan. There are hundreds of varieties, and you all probably have your favorites. I like to add chia seeds for added fiber and protein powder to my fruit smoothies to balance out the glycemic index. I’ll share a few favorites.
        • Milk-based smoothie: Almond milk, banana, dates
        • Milk-based smoothie: Almond milk, banana, peanut butter, chocolate (I use either PB2 with chocolate or I add unsweetened cocoa powder)
        • Juice-based smoothie: pineapple juice (4-6oz), 1 banana, handful of greens of choice (baby spinach, kale, chard greens), 4 strawberries
        • Yogurt-based smoothie: greek yogurt (4-6oz), 1 peach, 1/2 to full banana
        • Red juice: beet, apple, carrot, ginger
        • Red/orange juice: apple, celery, carrot, ginger
        • Red smoothie / juice: watermelon, mint, juice of lemon, sprinkle of cinnamon
        • Green juice (or you can make into a smoothie): cucumber, apple, celery, mint
    4. Water
      • Hopefully this goes without saying, but ensure you drink enough water. Outside of Ramadan, I usually like to drink half my body weight in OUNCES per day. Sometimes that is hard to accomplish during the short hours we are allowed to eat in Ramadan. Do your best.
      • Be creative; if you are eating watermelon daily (which my family does), then you are getting a source of water.
    5. Protein
      • CONSUME YOUR PROTEIN! Consider that the average person needs about .4-.5g of protein per lb of bodyweight per day (athletes need about .5-.8/lb).
      • You need protein to lose weight. And since we are fasting for 30 days, our body will tap into protein stores often. Feed them!
      • Maximize your protein sources. As mentioned above, I like to add a scoop of protein powder to my smoothies. There are dozens you can choose from, and I wrote up my review on protein powders here.
        • Suhoor (pre-dawn meal) – I prepared a batch of homemade Larabars to eat in the morning. Loaded with dates, nuts, protein powder and dried fruit, they were a fantastic source of energy. Find my recipe here.
        • Suhoor (pre-dawn meal) – I prepare a few protein pancakes: 1/4 cup egg whites, 1 scoop protein powder, 1-2 tsp almond milk, 1 tbsp flax seeds, 1 tbsp cinnamon. Mix well, add 1/2 mashed banana. Pan fry as you would a normal pancake. They take some practice to make but are completely satisfying.
    6. Macronutrients
      • Don’t skimp on your overall macros: carbs, fats and protein. Eat healthy fats (nuts, seeds, and olive oils). Fat burns in the flame of carbohydrates, but this does not imply you shall stock up on excess carbs at iftar time. If you have a few fried samosas or pakoras, enjoy them, and compensate elsewhere. Be smart about balancing your nutrition, eat in moderation. Focus on the big picture.

I hope you will find this useful and a framework from which you can develop healthy habits during Ramadan. Most important, above everything, enjoy it. Fasting is something that is prescribed for us; yet we can appreciate the many benefits it has on our body.


References:

  1. Leucine, glucose, and energy metabolism after 3 days of fasting in healthy human subjects. Am J Clin Nutr October 1987 vol. 46 no. 4 557-562.

  2. Effects of Ramadan Fasting on Body Composition, Aerobic Performance and Lactate, Heart Rate and Perceptual Responses in Young Soccer Players: J Hum Kinet. Sep 2011; 29: 79–91.
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