We searched the Livehealthy archives for the best mental and physical advice for Ramadan: everything from what to eat, to when and how; when to workout and what to do; how to be more sustainable, more mindful and more meditative, and how to clean out your closets – and your mind.
Go easy on high-intensity cardio
One thing that can happen during Ramadan is that the body can enter a catabolic state.
This is when the body breaks down tissue to replenish energy and is usually a result of excessive training and inadequate nutrition. It can be a strain on the body and can cause fatigue, aches and pains and problems sleeping. Catabolism is the opposite of the anabolic state, which is when the body builds and repairs muscle tissue.
Ramadan is also a prime time to lose muscle and feel weak, says Abhinav Malhotra, an elite master trainer at Fitness First Middle East.
That’s why it’s just not the month to go for high-intensity cardio, which relies on stored glycogen which is in very short supply because you’re fasting. If you have inadequate glycogen, the body will convert protein into glucose, which is what leads to loss of muscle mass.
Also high-intensity training involves sweating, and losing water and electrolytes is not a good idea when you are fasting.
Focus on resistance
The answer is resistance training, either with weights or bodyweight, for these reasons:
preserving vital muscle mass and strength
improving hormone profile (testosterone, cortisol, insulin, growth hormone)
Boosting emotional state through endorphin production
Resistance training helps with borderline diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity and stabilizing blood sugar levels, by increasing both the size of muscle cells and the number of insulin receptors on them. This makes them more available for carbohydrate storage in the form of glycogen.
Figure out when to train
Before or after iftar, that is the question. There are benefits to both, says Malhotra.
Develops mental focus and intensity tolerance
More neurotransmitters are produced because insulin levels are low
stored fats are used more efficiently during the workouts
After a full day of fasting, followed by a training session, the body is hungry for nutrients, meaning carbohydrates will be easily stored as muscle glycogen and proteins will quickly go to damaged muscle fibres to kickstart repair and growth
Training before iftar will also allow for more time with family and friends after iftar, and gives you more time to sleep
It’s good for people who feel sluggish after iftar
Also works for people who have trouble sleeping after training
Some people feel more energized to train after they have eaten rather than when they’re hungry
The presence of more glucose and amino acids circulating in the blood makes for more favorable conditions for supporting high-volume training.
The higher the number of workouts, the more calories you will burn and the more you will build muscle hypertrophy
During Ramadan sleep patterns can be disrupted in all dimensions, including length, quality, continuity and consistency.
Dr Nasr Al Jafari, functional medicine practitioner at DNA Health and Wellness Center in Dubai, warns that missing out on sleep will increase stress levels and hunger cravings.
That’s why he recommends implementing a routine of keeping to a period of restfulness overnight and adopting the habit of catch-up naps in the day to alleviate any sleep deficit.
If you haven’t been able to get in regular workouts during Ramadan, Dr Al Jafari recommends switching to short bursts – movement snacks – and aiming to get them outdoors.
They can be as simple as walking, doing some stretches or doing short bursts of body weight exercises.
This will help keep your brain sharp, your energy up and improve your overall resilience.
Hala Dakhil, co-founder of the Jeddah-based Pulse Studio KSA, recommends making a workout plan and committing to it in the same way you would commit to showing up for a personal trainer session.
She recommends a cardio workout before breaking your fast, but if you feel too weak, remember that any movement is better than nothing.
Clear out clutter
Don’t forget to focus on your inner world too, reminds clinical psychologist Dr Saliha Afridi, founder of Lighthouse Arabia.
Ask yourself where you might have physical or emotional clutter that is blocking your progress.
“Now is the time to exercise self-compassion, to listen to your inner voice and decide what to take with you as you go forward,” she says.
While clearing out physical clutter seems obvious enough, emotional junk can be more tricky.
“It means not holding on to old grudges and thinking about who we need to forgive,” says Dr Afridi. “It means letting go of expectations and not spending so much time and energy on just wishing.”
Toxic relationships also belong on the list, even if they are family. Realizing you have people in your life who put you down, who are harsh and critical and who make you feel less doesn’t mean you have to walk away.
“You have to evaluate the relationship and your own part in it, because people don’t always take responsibility for that,” Dr Afridi advises. “What is it within you that contributed to the relationship not working well? What can you change? We need to learn that not every fight is worth it.”
Fasting is known to help rid your body of toxins, regulate metabolism and stabilize hormone levels.
It also helps you get in tune with the way your body responds, giving a new definition to intuitive eating, says Dr Remy Shanker, a medical doctor with a masters degree in dietetics and applied nutrition.
“You might want to use it as a launching pad to incorporate intermittent fasting into your life,” she says.
Nature’s own candies, like dates and apricots, are used to break the fast for a reason: “It’s because these densely nutritious bites of energy not only help to stabilize blood sugar levels, but are known to aid digestion.”
Iftars can provide some guidance for a healthier rest of the year too. Iftars begin with smaller portions of foods that are hydrating, to support gut health and replenish the body.
“This kind of conscious eating works well when carried into our regular routines,” says Dr Shanker.
As a nutritionist with a PhD in integrative medicine, one of Laura Holland’s favorite sayings is “your stomach doesn’t have teeth” for a reason.
Maddy Black, an occupational therapist, CrossFit coach and personal trainer from Australia who is based in Abu Dhabi, promises “amazing results” if you just take the time for 10 slow, deep breaths before you start to eat.
“Putting your body in a parasympathetic state before you start eating is so important for food absorption and digestion,” she says. “Without appropriate absorption or digestion, most of the calories from the food you eat will be stored as fat in the body. However, when these processes are working properly, those calories will be used appropriately.”
Cherish the hardship
The American WWE star Ali – real name Adeel Alam – often has to observe Ramadan on the road, away from his family.
“Performing during Ramadan is difficult, but if something means something to you, is special to you, it eases the burden,” he explains.
The training schedule of a WWE performer is “already difficult” before factoring in not being able to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. To accommodate the shift, Ali adjusts his entire schedule so that he works out at night and rests during the day.
That means doing cardio or weights at 2am or 3am, post-performance, post-iftar and after travel.
“It kind of messes up the sleep pattern and changes up a lot of things but within a few days my body just adjusts,” he says.
Like many Muslims, Ali relishes those moments in the countdown to iftar.
“I always tell friends, I always think about people who don’t have food,” he says.
Make it sustainable
Gulf countries are among the top 10 per capita waste generators in the world, and only 10 percent of that garbage is recycled.
Make a promise that this will be the Ramadan in which you dramatically reduce your contribution to the rubbish heap, using these tips from Veolia Middle East.
Take reusable bags and Tupperware when going shopping and use them when packing food or leftovers
Shop responsibly, purchasing items that are easy to recycle and avoiding items that are individually wrapped or sold in single servings
Create a compost bin and throw food scraps and yard or garden waste into it
Go paperless by asking stores for digital versions of receipts and getting bills sent online
Choose local produce
Try and limit meat and dairy, as both industries are energy intensive; consider having one vegan iftar a week
Cut down on processed foods, which are not only less healthy than whole foods but come wrapped in too much packaging
Try to plan meals in advance and make a list of exactly which ingredients you need and stick to it when you shop, to limit food waste
Try to cut down on plastic use: use glass dishes, or choose recyclable and compostable material like bamboo, and use metal or paper straws instead of plastic.
• This article originally ran in Ramadan 2020.