How to adjust your exercise and diet routine during Ramadan

Image: iStock
Image: iStock

Ramadan is coming up and many people unwittingly adopt bad habits during this time. Since there are costs to your health when you quit exercising and eat unhealthily, we spoke to a registered dietitian and wellness practitioner, Mariam Forgan, and fitness trainer, Neelam Effendi, about the necessary mental and physical adjustment of our minds and bodies.

Read more: Ramadaan: Our month of mercy

Exercise: To quit or not to quit? A fitness trainer answers our questions

It’s quite normal to feel lethargic during the fast and want to quit exercising altogether for a month, however, Neelam suggests this isn’t a wise decision. 

Since fasting is a detox in itself, she suggests that we should assist our detox along with some basic, light exercise. If you quit, your body will take a much longer time to get back to the level you were at before Ramadan. In other words, you will lose muscle mass, strength and endurance, and she explains that it will take you a painfully long time to get back to that point again. 

Adjust your exercise routine

Instead of training at the same intensity, Neelam advises that we take it down a notch and train at 60% of our usual intensity. This will leave a reasonable amount of energy for the day to perform all necessary tasks. However, as a fitness trainer, Neelam usually trains at almost exactly the same pace during the fast and suggests athletes can do so too. 

Choose light weight training and body weight exercises rather than cardiovascular exercise. You should feel slightly energised after your session, not lethargic or dehydrated. “Ramadan training should be more like maintenance and one can make it part of the spiritual process – by training, you are appreciating the health bestowed upon you by your Creator,” she explains.

Should you exercise fewer times per week?

“I would go with what your body tells you,” says Neelam. “I think anyone with reasonable health can train thrice per week. If you usually train four times per week, you can continue doing so.”

For Neelam, it's not about the amount of times of training – rather, it’s the intensity during the sessions that she feels makes the bigger difference. It would also be a bigger benefit for you to be as consistent as possible, but be careful not to exert yourself. If you're training after you break your fast you should be able to keep up with your usual training consistency.  

She also advises that you can overwork yourself in the beginning of Ramadan under the pretense that you still have the same vigor. It's therefore important to recognise that you actually don’t, and that if you push too hard you will burn out. Weight training and body weight exercises are great, but you should keep your weights light and your reps medium-high. 

“Now, I'm not saying if you're usually shoulder pressing 15kgs to drop to 2kgs. I'm just saying keep it at a good 20 rep range. If you can't do 15-20 reps for 3/4 sets without feeling flustered then you might want to drop your weight.”

The best time to exercise

You should train when you feel good, Neelam suggests, but adds that it is preferable to train after consuming a meal. An even better option would be having a meal pre- and post-workout, so that would make either before suhur (the pre-dawn meal before fasting) or after iftar (the meal after breaking one's fast) the best times to train. 

Neelam personally loves training before iftar. “I feel I have good energy at this time and I don't have to worry too much about not feeding my muscles as I break my fast soon after. If you eat yourself into a stupor before training that also isn't smart.”

And what about diet adjustments? A registered dietician responds

For suhur: 

Mariam suggests sticking to protein-rich foods, such as one or two boiled eggs, avocado, or pilchards or sardines on low GI seeded bread. These foods will keep you fuller for longer. Energy-dense cereals that will carry you through the day include maize meal, ProNutro and All-Bran cereal (be sure to include banana and dates in it). 

Avoid minimal nutritional foods such as Cornflakes, Rice Krispies, Cheerios and Special K – they’re very high in sugar and not filling. The more sugar your food contains, the hungrier you’ll become as sugar itself drives hunger. 

Since hunger is often confused with thirst, Mariam recommends you consume at least one glass of water in the morning – this will determine how much you eat afterwards. If you can train before suhur, Neelam suggests you have a light smoothie or protein shake before your breakfast.

For iftar:

Stay away from foods that are high in saturated fats, sugar, deep-fried foods (sorry, yummy boeka treats!) and fizzy drinks. Since our metabolisms slow down at night, food is broken down at a much slower pace compared to during the day.

As a result, the excess you take in will not be utilised by the body. When taking in energy, you have to burn that energy by being physically active. However, when you’re sleeping, you’re unable to do that so any excess sugar gets stored as adipose tissue (fat) and that’s why it becomes very difficult to lose it.

Interesting fact: Once you have too much sugar in your body and it’s not being utilised, that sugar turns into fat which then becomes a fat cell. That fat cell can shrink through exercise and weight loss but can never be lost, so as tempting and as tasty as those unhealthy foods are, say no to them!

Your mindset and behaviour during iftar 

Mariam believes that it’s not so much about the food as it is about the quantity in that your thoughts influence everything you consume. If you believe you need more than your body actually needs you’ll tend to overeat and that’s ultimately the problem, she says. 

“The fast actually teaches us that we don’t need too much food, like the Prophet Muhammed (S) said, you should keep one third of your stomach free for air and breathing, one third for food, and the other third for water.” 

Overeating also causes shallow breathing and lethargy, so, for your own sake, you shouldn’t overeat at dinner. Your body will automatically think that it’s going to be starved and will consequently hang onto every morsel of food that you have consumed, explains Mariam, and that’s when you tend to gain weight.

Also, avoid having too many treats before your supper – it should be one or the other unless you’re going to have some treats with something as light as soup as your meal. Exclude them altogether if your supper consists of starchy foods like rice, potatoes, stew, etc. Remember, these starches contain sugar so select healthier options like beans and barley. 

Starches to steer clear from are the refined carbohydrates such as pasta, white rice, and overly processed foods such as white bread. If you do have white rice or basmati rice, include some lentils in the rice as this will bulk up the fibre of the rice.

If you’re going to exercise after breaking your fast, do not consume heavy carbs as that will make you tired and slow. Instead, Neelam says you should keep your meals light to keep energy up and can have your denser meals post-workout.

Weight gain instead of weight loss during Ramadan

A healthy plate model shows that half your plate should consist of salads and vegetables, a quarter should be your protein, and the other quarter should contain high-fibre starchy foods. 

Research from Ohio State University indicates that skipping meals could lead to weight gain as you'll subconsciously eat a lot more during your next meal. This could also apply when fasting since you haven’t eaten all day and the assumption therefore becomes that you need to make up for a missed meal. This shouldn’t be the case as fasting is supposed to help us with detoxing our bodies.

Tip from Mariam: Know yourself and your weaknesses, and work against that. If you know you tend to overindulge in certain types of foods, don’t have them in your home.

“It’s also really about a belief system and a pattern,” she says. “If you overfill your plate, you’ll feel like you need to empty it to prevent wastage. Dish a small portion first, and go for a second portion only if you really are hungry.”

Remember what the month of fasting is really about

The fast in itself shouldn’t revolve around food, Mariam stresses. A lot of people get completely caught up in the chaos of making and preparing food, but it’s actually a month of humility where you should be concentrating on yourself and your relationship with God. 

Similarly, Neelam explains that Ramadan is about exercising self-restraint and discipline in all areas of life.

“Ramadan is not supposed to be a time when you stop living your normal life. People take it way too easy on themselves. We are supposed to try to maintain our usual routines while in a state of fasting (mind and body). This is where you will reap the most benefits.

"Emerge yourself in your fasted state, feel the hunger pangs, and learn from the different sensations. Evolve and use this opportunity to become a stronger and better version of yourself. There are other ways to pray and worship your Creator and what would be a better way than taking care of the body He gifted you.”

What foods do you most enjoy for iftar? Tell us.

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