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.
Each year Ramadan shifts according to the moon. In 2020 it starts on the evening of Thursday, April 23rd and ends at sundown on Saturday, May 23. During this period Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, which means the exact length of the fast depends on geographic location. For those in the United Kingdom, this year Ramadan falls in the early summer, so these people will be fasting for about 18 hours a day.
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 (you can read more about intermittent fasting here).
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 (the 16:8 or 5:2 diet). And, importantly, 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 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 to reinvigorate your health and fitness?
Rawan: “Ramadan is when you follow a routine that is helpful physiologically for our 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 have 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.”
Ibaa Masri teaches BODYPUMP at Gold's Gym Jeddah City.
Should you change the exercise you do in Ramadan?
Rabab: “In Ramadan you can do all types of training, as you can manipulate the intensity and the timing according to the ability of your body on that day. But because of the long hours of fasting, our bodies can’t perform 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 work out during a short period, so I teach mostly 30 and 45-minute express classes.”
Rawan: “I aim to maintain my fitness as much as I can, but I reduce my number of 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: “Group fitness numbers spike up in Kuwait during Ramadan as we all motivate each other during the challenging time. Cycling is one of the most popular classes in Ramadan and we add classes to meet the demands. I find Ramadan is a good time to train a moderate pace, adding more focus on core, mobility and posture.”
Iman Metwally is Les Mills Regional Training Coordinator based in Kuwait.
What’s the best time to exercise?
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, in Ramadan there is a major change to the timetabling of group workouts, and classes shift mostly to the afternoon and during the night. This is because most people prefer to work out at night 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 min before iftar (the meal after sunset), or as close as possible to Iftar in order to best hit the fat burning zone. I suggest avoiding high-intensity training. Another option is to do interval training or full body power/strength lifting 2-3 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 of blood sugar. Usually the classes are scheduled three hours before iftar. Some classes are given two hours after iftar too.”
Iman: “I love classes right before iftar (between 4:45 pm and 5:30 pm). I love the energy in this time of the day as it’s the sweet spot for group fitness. Rather than reducing the intensity of the class we reduce the duration – teaching 45 and 30-mins classes is key to keeping the energy and the hype up.”
“It is best to do low impact cardio 30-40 min before iftar (the meal after sunset), or as close as possible to iftar in order to best hit the fat burning zone.”
How can you ensure sufficient sleep and recovery?
Iman: “Sleep is the biggest challenge we face in Ramadan! Generally speaking, in order to digest the food, pray, socialize and enjoy the after breakfast traditions I won’t get to sleep before 3am. As we go sleep very late it leads to waking up later than normal. In Muslim countries like where I live, work starts later than normal so it gives people the chance to sneak in some extra hours of sleeping in the morning.”
Ibaa: “In Ramadan, people rarely get a full 7-8 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 in Ramadan, I try to shift 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!”
Rabab Omar Abdel Baqi is based in Jordan and teaches at Golds Gym.
When you only have a small window to fuel your body, how do you do it well?
Ibaa: “Ramadan is a great opportunity to get rid of the cravings, but unfortunately it’s very common for people who fast to go crazy with food, drinks and sweets after sunset. Try and avoid this and stick to well-portioned food and slow eating for 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 is preferable to delay eating the main meal to allow for good digestion.”
“You will be surprised how focused you are when your stomach is not struggling to digest that glazed custard donut!”
Rawan Alsaadi is a trainer and presenter for Les Mills Middle East.
What are the best foods for suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) and iftar (the nightly feast that breaks the fast)?
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. Post sunset, when your body has spent 15-plus hours with no 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 enough fiber is obtained. The main meal should contain carbohydrates (rice or potato), a source of protein and vegetables. Sufficient protein at each meal is recommended to help maintain muscle mass.”
Rabab: “Some form of dessert always features after the main meal, but try to avoid too much sweet food, as it will increase the feeling of thirst during the day and not provide sufficient nutrition.”
Ibaa: “I avoid beef, pickles, fatty, salty and fried food, and soft drinks – they will only increase thirst, get the body struggling with digestion, disturb sleeping and increase gastric acid, and of course they won’t assist 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 holding your fasting is not hydration!”
Ibaa: “Juicy fruits like watermelon are great for getting liquids in 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, about a glass of water every 30 to 60 minutes.”
RAMADAN QUICK TIPS
- Share your healthy intentions with like-minded friends and family (Ramadan is often a time when people indulge in unhealthy habits)
- 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 (the evening meal)
- 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 portioned, divided food and slow eating on (iftar) is key to avoid over eating
- Sleep well, this well help in the mental focus instead of blaming thirst and hunger. (You can get some top sleep tips here.)
Ibaa Masri is a Saudi Arabia-based lawyer and Les Mills assessor and coach who also teaches at Gold's Gym Jeddah City. He teaches BODYATTACK, BODYBALANCE/BODYFLOW, BODYCOMBAT, BODYPUMP and LES MILLS GRIT. You can follow Ibaa here: instagram.com/ibaa_masri/
Rabab Omar Abdel Baqi is a BODYATTACK trainer and presenter, a BODYPUMP, BODYSTEP, RPM and CXWORX instructor and a LES MILLS SPRINT and LES MILLS GRIT coach. She is based in Amman, Jordan and teaches at Golds Gym.
Iman Metwally is the Regional Training Coordinator for Les Mills Middle East. She is BODYATTACK, BODYCOMBAT, BODYPUMP and LES MILLS GRIT trainer and presenter and a BODYBALANCE/BODYFLOW, CXWORX and SH’BAM instructor who teaches at Al Corniche Club. She is based in Kuwait.
Rawan Alsaadi is a trainer and presenter for Les Mills Middle East.