There is no better time to set personal fitness goals than during the Holy Month, which is all about setting aside time to reflect, rejuvenate, break old habits and start new ones. Here’s how I managed to lose weight and build muscle last Ramadan.
Ramadan is the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar. Muslims fast from dawn to sunset, abstaining from food and drink, among other pleasures (particularly the guilty ones) but also gathering to celebrate with loved ones.
As it’s a time for meditation and abstinence, many people, including myself, have used it as an opportunity to ditch unwanted habits and also achieve a goal. That’s what I did in Ramadan 2018, when I decided I wanted to significantly decrease body fat and increase muscle.
I was unhappy with my body composition and level of fitness so I set myself a goal to drop two to three percent body fat while increasing muscle mass. I happened to make this decision a few weeks before Ramadan, which may not be the ideal time to think about upping your gym performance. But there is no perfect time, so I went for it anyway.
Experimenting with your body is a great way to challenge yourself and keep busy during the Holy Month. However, there are important steps involved in making sure you reach your goal successfully, safely and, of course, still able to enjoy the festive nature of Ramadan.
The right trainer
It was important to identify what I wanted to change over the course of the month. I had been a bodybuilder for two years yet I had not achieved my goal, so I knew I had to change my ways. I also knew I needed guidance — a trainer to lead me through the right workouts and help me plan the right food, which was especially crucial now.
The tight Ramadan schedule means trainers were scarce, but I was lucky to find Warehouse Gym’s Diago Haddadi, who was able to work with me in the evenings after iftar.
What many people overlook is that the right trainer will provide excellent guidance and knowledge that is relevant both inside and outside the gym. They also track your progress from start to finish, monitoring your meals, workouts, sleep and lifestyle — all crucial to achieving your goal in a specific time frame. The value I got from this was certainly worth the Dh2,750 it cost to work with Diago in a 10-session block throughout the month.
A diet plan
The right training should also be accompanied with the right diet. We’ve all heard that going to the gym is 30 percent of the journey while food accounts for 70 percent, meaning your effort is meaningless if your nutrition isn’t right. The importance of food is magnified during Ramadan as you’ve been fasting for the whole day.
Fasting is a great way to lose weight but often you actually gain weight during this month. The key to staying on track and even losing fat was to eat what I normally would, which in this case was a balanced diet with high protein content and lower carbs and fat.
I put some thought into how I would consume my meals upon breaking my fast; I didn’t want my energy to crash, because I had a workout afterwards, and I had to fit everything into a small, seven to nine-hour eating window.
To make sure I kept my energy steady, I’d break my fast with the lighter, less fatty, lower GI (glycemic index) elements of my diet. This would include slow-release carbs to provide a more sustained release of energy, rather than high-release carbs which cause a spike in blood sugar levels that can make you feel tired and lethargic more quickly.
So I would break my fast with quinoa or brown rice and vegetables. I’d also include nut butters, fresh fruits or three medjool dates; I found them to be a great pre-workout snack taken with unsweetened coffee.
I made sure to avoid fatty red meats for protein, as they are harder to digest. My daily go-tos were either chicken, turkey or salmon. I personally found that lean meats like chicken were far easier to digest than salmon.
Meal prepping and measuring macronutrients was very helpful in making sure I got everything I needed within the limited time frame. Keeping in mind the short eating window, I made sure to space my four meals two to three hours apart to get all the nutrients I needed without negatively affecting digestion.
The short eating window means there’s only so much time to get your macronutrients in. In my case, I had to consume 285 grams of protein, which was a challenge for me. In this situation, don’t neglect getting the right supplements to help you achieve your goals. There are many great protein powders on the market that are free of artificial ingredients and harmful sweeteners. My personal favorite has always been the vegan and dairy-free Clean Lean Protein by Nuzest. It has 19 to 21 grams of protein and is very low in fat and carbs.
For suhoor in particular, a high quality casein powder is an ideal choice, providing a slow release of protein for the next day of fasting to ensure no loss of muscle, and boosting the digestive system.
When it comes to exercise, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, so it’s crucial to find what works best for you. This also applies to the timing of workouts when fasting. During Ramadan, I’d train in the evening right after breaking my fast, with a light yet effective meal followed by an unsweetened coffee.
Several people advised me to train before breaking my fast, saying I would also be surprised at how much energy I had as well as losing fat. But I simply couldn’t imagine myself going through my intense lifting and circuit workouts when I was dehydrated. Peer pressure can be persuasive however, so I decided to give it a shot, wondering if it would be more time-effective and also enhance my progress. As I expected, 20 minutes into the workout I felt exhausted, uncomfortable and weak from dehydration.
Experiment by all means but what works for others may not work for you. So the moral is: go with what suits you best.
Breaking the fast with our loved ones means that the food on the table may not always be ideal for achieving your goals. At home, I’d prepare my own dish that met my requirements and integrate it with whatever else my mother had made. I was also able to combine traditional yet healthy dishes with mine, such as hummus or fava beans.
This is a great way to maintain a clean diet without feeling excluded from the social side of Ramadan. It also helps in promoting the same clean eating habit around the table.
And of course, I’d dedicate one day where I’d allow myself to indulge in traditional comfort foods and desserts that are normally enjoyed during Ramadan. As ever, the key is moderation and enjoying foods that are natural, free of added sugar and freshly made.
Many Muslims and non-Muslims look forward to the month because of its festive yet serene nature, giving us all a chance to connect with our loved ones. This often takes place at the family dinner table, over a cup of fresh Arabic coffee or at the mosque.
Having a fitness schedule and diet didn’t stop me from enjoying what the month has to offer. The key is to manage your time.
Dedicate certain hours of the day for work or school, meal preparation, socializing with loved ones, Ramadan prayers and of course, your workout. After all, it is a time for reflection and creating new, good habits and that takes discipline.
The bottom line is that with the proper guidance, nutrition, time management and moderation, you can make changes during Ramadan. You just have to start.
• This article was originally published in April 2021.
Issa handles multimedia at livehealthy.ae and got involved in fitness and healthy living after graduating high school. The sedentary lifestyle and junk food diet of his teen years had taken a toll on his wellbeing. Now, he makes sure to put his health first. Issa earned his bachelor’s in marketing and has since found his passion in media and arts.