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Exercise in Ramadan: an alternative view.

girl runningIt’s a question that gets asked a lot….”exercise during Ramadan?”  Google it and you will see a hundered posts on the benefits of maintaining your exercise regime (if not a little reduced), the best times to workout, the best type of workout,the best pre workout snack, post workout protein etc etc….hey Ive even written a pretty detailed post myself a few years ago…please do have a look here .

So the simple and science-based answer is YES YOU CAN EXERCISE WHILE FASTING. There is no reason why the reasonably healthy body could not cope with it, with a little modification and adaptation. And infact if you are already fat-adapted (low carb/ketogenic/metabolically flexible) then that makes it all the easier. There is a great piece by Dr Fung on it here . But a Ramadan fast is not an ordinary fast. The intention behind an ordinary health-inspired fast is usually totally about the self, perhaps weight loss, body shape or controlling disease. You can sleep as per norm and mostly drink at least water whenever you desire.You are in control of what you do and when you do it. Ramadan is a bit different though : Sleep disruption, changes to normal routines,extra religious and cultural activities, lack of hydration opportunities all add up to making it a pretty challeging time for body and mind.

shutterstock_44460409So this updated post goes a little against the current narrative of advising everyone to exercise all the time.This post is not aimed at Gym Bods whose lives revolve around aesthetics of their bodies or athletes whose careers are dependent on training. Clearly they are going to carry on. This is for most of us normies who are juggling  complicated, full lives and are always trying to find time to squeeze in exercise in the belief it is utterly vital to health. This article just gives you a slightly different outlook…..a opportunity of rest without guilt or worry…and assurance that exercise( ie structured fitness) during Ramadan is not always beneficial and certainly not necessary. Its not for everyone, even if you are normally generally active.

 

The western or modern approach to health is very binary. We pick on one or two things and vigorously and unnaturally control these imaginging that we will achieve desired outcomes. But the body is not like that. The body is all about balance. Over exercising can easily take us out of balance, as can overeating, under-eating, or lack of sleep and even overthinking. In fact there is poison in everything,even water! Its all about dose and context. In the modern fitness world we focus too much on achievement, gains, performance and productivity and often forget that rest and recuperation is also a very important aspect of fitness and health.

poisonHaving been in the world of exercise for many years now, I directly see the negative impact of the modern method of working out. From the artificial enviroment of the gym to the damaging repetitive movements of machines like the treadmill, to group classes which are trying harder to retain customers by coming up with weird faddy new exercises to people pushing themselves beyond their capabilites. Now that I specialise in therapeutic movement I see the physical and mental impact of this need for us to “push hard” “burn” and treat exercise like a performance. Its not that good for the body or the mind long term

muslim couple walkingMany online posts encourage us to gain maximum health benefits by exercising while fasting. To be honest, you will gain maximum benefits ( increased insulin sensitivity, weight loss, autophagy, increased Human Growth Factor, reduced blood pressure etc) by just being mindful of your actual diet without pushing your body to the limit with intense exercise. In fact, exercising intensley while eating less than normal actually creates too large of a caloric deficit that can be a major stress to the body. This triggers metabolic compensations and imbalances. I think its pretty clear to most of us that eating less and exercising more (which is the standard advice for weight loss) does not actually work long term. The metabolism always pushes back eventually. And it will have 11 months of the year to do so

While exercise is not at all necessary, MOVEMENT is VITAL. All day movement at a leisurley pace or light intensity is the way to go ! Movement based fitness is so beneficial to the body and sadly underrated. We live in an age where “more,more,more”, faster and harder, pushing your boundaries is valued above all else. Why would you waste 20 minutes on a walk when you could jog or do hot yoga??

A great, stress-free, recuperative strategy in Ramadan is to

  • Eat Less : this naturally happens when fasting is 16-19hours long, You will be in a state of DETOXIFICATION, your body will be busily cleaning and repairing and renewing itself. With or without exercise.
  • Eat Smart : Choose your foods wisely. Your body is in a state of renewal so dont spoil it by breaking fast with highly processed foods. Eat real, nutritious foods. Eliminate sugar, refined grains and seed oils.
  • Exercise Less: Put your schedule on pause.Or significantly reduce it. Perhaps instead of 5 times a week just try twice. Instead of a Hiit session, do a few functional moves press-ups, squats,lunges and pull-ups etc. I advise my Muslim clients to bulid regular movement into thier lives by tagging on functional movement at the end of their prayers.You’re on the mat anyway, stick on a few press-ups and a plank with every prayer!
  • MOVE MORE. Enjoy a walk,try a gentle mobilty routine, do some online Yoga, spring clean the house room by room, wash the car, play with the kids more, move your rib-cage by focussing on breathwork for the month! Avoid excessive couch potato-ing!

Most people who ask about exercise during Ramadan are those that are already highly motivated gym goers. And the type of exercise they do is the fitness industry standards : treadmill, gym, group classes, HIIT, spin, jogging, weights etc. Often some pretty intense stuff. I would even go so far as to say that there is a level of obsession or addiction to exercise which is why they are almost  fearful of stopping for a month. What would it do to the gains? the body? the mood? the routine?

Remember, exercise is actually a stressor on the body. The body produces pain-relieving feel- good hormones to counteract the stress impact of exercise and thats why it feels so good. But as we get more and more active, we need a higher and higher dose to get the same effect…..most of us exercise lovers have been there….ADDICTION! Ramadan is all about relection and internal balance. It may also be a good idea to reflect on your own needs and reliance on exercise routines to deal with problems or issues that actually need dealing with through other lifestyle changes.

A further complication of Ramadan is sleep disruption which has an enormous impact on hormones and health. I always advise clients to prioritise sleep over exercise. Sleep is the foundation of health on which exercise and nutrition rely. And during Ramandan in the long summer months we are pretty much all over the place. Disruption of our sleep cycles, not enough sleep, change of routines, no chance of power napping due to work etc.There is no way that this doesnt have a negative impact on hormonal balance. Why add to the chaos of chemicals in our body with a HIIT session at 3am??

So summary:

  • Fasting and exercise is fine but Ramadan is not just ordinary fasting. Unless your career depends on performance, you do not HAVE to exercise.
  • If you love it, and it fits in with your lifestyle and your not knackered from sleep disruption, then do it. If there are too many other committments or you struggle with lack of sleep then give yourself a well deserved rest, tone it way down, enjoy a daily walk with friends or family instead.
  • You need to ask yourself what are you actually trying to gain by continiuing your gym schedule …or why is it you cant just take a break and concentrate on other important aspects of health. Address your addiction!
  • Exercise is not necessary, but MOVEMENT is a must
  • If you do decide to continue your regime then its probably safe to continue with modifications such as reduced intensity or duration, lighter weights or less reps. Avoid doing new, challenging or intense classes or exercises that your body is not used to and setting PB challenges!

woman yogaRAMADAN IS A BREAK FROM YOUR NORMAL LIFE, that is its purpose. To make you stop and think for a bit. If your year is spent in a routine of fitness classes or pounding pavements, now is a perfect time to pause and reflect. Concentrate on deeper aspects of your health before the blessed month is over and you get carried back into the madness of the rat race.