By Lynsey Riach
Fasting has long been known for its health benefits, however it can actually put a lot of strain on the body – which makes exercise and good nutrition difficult to maintain during the Holy Month, a time when dehydration, decreased muscle-mass, and weight-gain are common amongst those who fast.
It means for those who want to maintain or improve their health and fitness, Ramadan can be something of a metabolic minefield, and as much damage limitation needs to be put into action as possible so as to not suffer severe health-related problems during and after Ramadan. This is especially true when Ramadan falls during the sweltering summer months.
As many of us are aware, daytime life moves at a slower pace during the Holy Month, and then completely changes up at night when Muslims break their fast. Once they enjoy Iftar and begin eating and socializing with friends and family, people generally feel more energetic. Take note: Ramadan should not be used as an excuse to take a break from exercising as it’s extremely important that you do some form of physical activity over Ramadan as without it, and in the absence of a regular eating pattern, your metabolism will gradually slow down and your body will not operate at its optimum level which in turn can lead to weight gain!
So when’s the best time to hit the gym?
With your body clock completely thrown off, it may be tricky to stick to your usual routine – but the ideal time to exercise during the Holy Month is either very early in the morning after your last meal, or after sunset following your first meal. This will give your metabolism some sense of normality. Exercise duration should be kept to a minimum. Aim for 45 minutes of high-intensity workout. Ramadan should be more about maintaining muscle rather than muscle growth. It’s not the ideal time to push yourself.
Exercises that are gentle during this month would be walking, swimming, cycling, and yoga. Understand that it’s okay to move your body while fasting – don’t be scared!
Given the fast-and-feast nature of Ramadan, a diet that supports an active lifestyle is probably the toughest challenge. But it’s water, rather than food, that’s the secret to staying fit. Once the sun sets on your day and you’re allowed to drink, your main focus should be hydration as this is the key to your metabolism surviving the physiological stress of fasting. A recommended daily target should be from 3-4 litres of water but this depends on your exertion levels. Eat four or five small meals during the post-fast period, which should be enough for maintenance. Eat a large pre-fast meal before sunrise, then break the fast when the sun goes down. Eat again at about 9:30 p.m. and, finally, have a pre-bedtime meal at 11:30 p.m.
You are what you eat!
Without much control over when to eat, you should try to show discipline when choosing what to eat. Ensure that meals contain easily digestible protein and, depending on your body composition goals, some complex carbohydrates and essential fats. Follow an intense workout with a natural whey or soya-based shake with essential fats, a piece of fruit, and a handful of nuts.
Eat something wholesome such as eggs, grilled vegetables, wholemeal toast, and coffee, then go straight into your workout. But not everyone could digest that much food and then train at that intensity – so do what suits your body best. Just know to be smart in your food choices as it’s easy to over-indulge at a time when so many delicious and festive foods are on offer.
Ramadan shouldn’t be a time that prevents proper nutrition and physical activity. It can be very challenging and requires strict discipline and moderation, but that’s part of the meaning of Ramadan.
So what actually happens to your body during a fast?
Your body generates its own energy by burning stored resources made from excess fats, carbohydrates and sugars to produce energy. The liver is the most significant organ in this economical process; it converts the fats into chemicals called ketones that are then used as a source for energy.
Detoxification is one of the most important benefits of fasting. A regular body process, detoxification occurs as the colon, liver, kidney, lungs, lymph glands, and skin eliminate or neutralize toxins. This process speeds up during fasting as the body breaks down fats. Chemicals and toxins absorbed from food and the environment are stored in fat reserves and released during fasting.
Fasting is also a healing exercise for the mind, body, and soul in more ways than one. At a physical level, energy and resources are diverted from the digestive system (which is constantly in overuse as we graze on food) to the immune system, and metabolic processes allowing the body to heal, rebuild, and replenish itself. Medical studies show that during a fast, abnormal tissue growths such as tumours become starved for nutrients and are hence more susceptible to being broken down and removed from the body. This re-vamped protein synthesis results in healthier cells, tissues, and organs.
Other changes in the body during a fast include a slight decrease in core body temperature due to a decline in metabolic rate and general bodily functions. Blood sugar levels also drop as the body uses the reservoir of glycogen in the liver and the base metabolic rate (BMR) is reduced in order to conserve energy. The digestive system, which is very often overloaded, and ceaselessly put to work, also cleanses itself for more efficient digestion and nutrient absorption. The lining of the stomach and intestines are allowed to restore glands and muscle, and remove waste matter.
Why is water the best for thirst instead of other Ramadan drinks?
Unlike water, other fluids contain lots of sugar and can result in you consuming extra calories. Drinking too many Ramadan drinks and other soft drinks will fill up your stomach and delay your digestion process, adding on unwanted weight!
Water plays a significant role in weight-loss and maintenance, because it helps get rid of toxins and reduces the feeling of hunger. This is why it's important to drink small quantities of water throughout the night.
Prevention is thirsty work...
The food that you eat plays a major role in controlling your thirst while fasting. Here are some hydration tips to help keep your thirst at bay:
A.) Drink at least eight glasses of water every day. If you're exercising and are outdoors in hot weather, you lose more fluids. So make sure you drink more water.
B.) Avoid hot and spicy dishes as they increase thirst.
C.) Don't add too much salt to salads and other dishes. Also avoid eating salty foods like salted fish and pickles as they increase the body's need for water.
D.) Eat fresh fruits and vegetables because they're rich in water and fibre, and they stay in the intestines for a long time and reduce thirst.
E.) Drink fresh fruit juices rather than sweetend juices.
F.) Try not to drink large quantities of water all at once, or a lot during a meal. Instead, drink water between your meals.
Good to know
Thirst is a sign of dehydration. Whether or not this information comes as surprise, the truth is, if you feel thirsty, you're already dehydrated. Basically you need to avoid reaching the spot where you feel thirsty. Of course, during the long fasting days of Ramadan, drinnking water is not an option but these little tips and tricks may just help...
1. Drink water before starting your fast
Prepare for your day of fasting by drinking enough water throughout the night. Keep a bottle of water close by during the evening, and try to drink a cup or two at least every hour. An easy way to remember to drink water is to associate it with a common, daily act. Multiple health websites suggest taking a drink whenever your phone rings. We suggest drinking water when commercials come on during your favourite TV show.
Be careful when picking your daytime clothes during Ramadan. The colour of your shirt, the fabric of your pants, and the layers of clothes all play an important role in keeping your body temperature as low as possible. If you work indoors, pick a light-coloured shirt; if most of your day is spent outside, a darker colour will protect you from the effects of the sun. Black, however, is not advisable, as it tends to attract the heat and lock it close to your body. A loose cotton T-shirt, which allows your sweat to evaporate, is a better idea.
3. Cold showers
Colds showers help in many ways to rehydrate you during the month of Ramadan. After a couple of days of fasting, thirst becomes a normal feeling, so try to notice other, obvious signs of dehydration: cracked lips, flushed skin, fatigue, increased body temperature, and increased breathing and pulse-rate, followed by dizziness, increased weakness, and laboured breathing.
If you feel one or more of these symptoms, you should try to lower your body temperature in any way possible. Spend 5-10 minutes with the base of your head under direct, cool water. You can also wet a small towel with ice water and apply the towel to your forehead, the area around your ears, the base of your neck, the upper back, and the chest.
4. Plan your menu
What you eat plays a huge part in dehydrating or hydrating your body. Food that contains a lot of sugar (such as Ramadan sweets) can really dehydrate you, while fruit is perfect for providing extra water. So, instead of ending your Iftar feast with piles of sweets, eat a couple of slices of watermelon, or an orange. Green salads are another good source of extra water, so include them in your Ramadan diet.
5. Working out
Because you lose a lot of water when you sweat, working out can undoubtedly cause dehydration. But exercising also helps your body dispose of toxins and other harmful elements that might cause dehydration later on. Try to counter-balance the amount of water lost by drinking water before you go to sleep.
Moving your body gently, replenishing your natural energy stores with pure water and healthful foods will keep you feeling happy, healthy and energetic during this special season. Enjoy!
What health rituals do you incorporate into your daily routine during Ramadan to ensure you stay healthy and happy throughout? Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to give us a like and a share – it keeps us going!
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