Ramadan Kareem (Have a generous Ramadan)

Ramadan, a period mostly known to non-Muslims as a time of fasting, began the evening of April 12. What does Ramadan, or being a Muslim, have to do with fitness? Possibly a lot.

Many Muslim women feel that they cannot engage in mixed gender sports and some follow a dress code that is not welcome in certain sports. While there is little statistical data available by religion, some surveys on Muslim women’s attitudes toward sport indicate that women in traditional Muslim countries are actually far more positive towards physical activity in schools than women in Western countries. This was because of requirements to use communal showers and wear clothing considered “inappropriate”. Conservative Muslim men also have these modesty concerns, and some also avoid public gym facilities for these reasons. You can read more about the issues and ways to promote participation here:

The whole debate about access to various sports for Muslim women athletes at all levels of ability is something that could fill many posts. Access to women-only time at swimming pools, with female lifeguards and instructors, women and girls fighting to play soccer or basketball while wearing a hijab, bans on modest swimwear, the media stories just keep coming. But there are role models too: Stephanie Kurlow, the girl who dreams of being the first hijab-wearing professional ballerina, Zahra Lari, the Emirati figure skater who has competed internationally, the 14 Muslim women who won medals at the 2016 Olympics, and all the female mountain climbers, skiers, marathon runners, cyclists, skateboarders, martial arts fighters, soccer players, swimmers, and more in places like Afghanistan – fighting against huge odds to pursue their sports dreams in an ultra-conservative society. My current favourite is Maryam Durani, who recently started a fitness club for women in Kandahar, former stronghold of the Taliban. If you do a search for Muslim women and sport, you will find many inspiring images.

Woman in a brown hijab and black sweater, holding a basketball. Photo by Yudhisthira IK on Unsplash

Of course, not all Muslim women athletes wear hijabs, but may still fast for Ramadan. Women are exempt if they are pregnant or menstruating, and everyone is exempt if they are sick, traveling, or if they are a child. So how should they maintain their fitness with no food or liquids for up to 16 hours a day for a month? Devinder Bains, a personal trainer from Dubai, recommends exercising after breaking the fast, but before the main evening meal, or early in the morning so you can eat before starting your fast for the next day. Hydrate often, and focus on resistance training rather than cardio, though a walk before Iftar (the evening meal) is fine. Ramadan is not the time to start a new exercise regime, or even worry about anything more than maintenance.

Ramadan Kareem to all my Muslim friends. I look forward to seeing you walking in the park or riding your bicycles over the next month. And when I do, I will quietly cheer you on for staying active while also carrying out this important part of your faith.

Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa. She has worked on women’s rights issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

fitness · holiday fitness · meditation · motivation

Exercising During Ramadhan (Guest Post)

Picture of dates, a sweet fruit used to traditionally break fasts.

I have steadily gained weight since having my two kids. It’s been so gradual that with each gain, I told myself that this was the new normal for my body. I have never dieted (that’s another story) but I have tried to exercise at various points in my life. Early last year (2017), I managed to get into a groove of walking/jogging on a treadmill for two miles, about three times a week. I don’t think I lost any weight during that time (but that wasn’t my goal), but I stopped gaining more. My purpose was to build stamina and strength and I developed a decent routine. Then, around end of May, Ramadhan came and I stopped exercising altogether. I thought to myself that I will pick it back up after, but I never did.

Ramadhan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Last year, it started around May 25th (each year, the month shifts by 10 -11 days). Muslims around the world observe this month by fasting from right before sunrise to right after sunset. During this period, Muslims abstain from all food, liquid, and from any sort of physical nourishment. We also abstain from (or are supposed to anyways) from any sort of bad behavior, such as telling white lies, being impatient, or rude, etc. Anyone who cannot fast because they are ill or pregnant, etc., can make up the fast later in the year. Ramadhan is also the month when we develop the habit of giving to folks less fortunate. It is considered a deeply spiritual month, when one is a guest of God’s hospitality and mercy.

By February 2018, I had gained another 10 pound from May 2017. I also had my blood work done and found out that I had high cholesterol level (the bad kind) and borderline A1C numbers (thing that measures if I am diabetic). I decided to get a personal trainer at my local YMCA and we began to meet once a week around Mid-March. She built a good steady plan with me, though there were weeks where I didn’t do the expected 30 mins, three times a week (I would think to myself: let me do a little bit more grading/work-related-emailing/course prepping because …. life ). Despite building a (more or less) good regimen, I was dreading what would happen to it all during Ramadhan. If I can’t eat or drink for almost 17 hours, I could not possibly workout.

Fortunately, my (non-Muslim) trainer had spent time in a Muslim country during Ramadhan and had some familiarity with the life style changes. She seemed convinced that I could work out during Ramadhan, though internally, I was rolling my eyes every time she would say that. I decided to schedule our last appointment during Ramadhan (I had bought two packages of five sessions and it was the last of the ten).

I was feeling quite lethargic when I went in to the gym. I didn’t want to be there. We began by her going over how I was feeling. Here what I learned in the rest of the session:

  • Since I haven’t eaten in a while before my workout, my metabolic rate slows down. Working out would speed it back up a bit and so I actually experienced a surge of energy by the end of the workout
  • Try and schedule my workout as close to iftari (breaking of the fast) as possible. This way, I can eat and drink within a couple of hours of workout. (This is a bit hard for my family because we open out fast at our local mosque. There is a lecture before our prayers and then we open our fasts together. If I work out around 5:45 pm, it gives me plenty time to get ready, and head to my center by 7:30 and open my fast by 8:55 pm).
  • Lay off hardcore cardio altogether – or anything that makes me thirstier.
  • Workout in a cool environment.
  • During Ramadhan, I should exercise to maintain the habit of exercising and maintain my strength and stamina. This may not be the best time for me to make any new gains.
  • Build in 30 seconds to 1 minute break between reps, be in control of my breath before starting the next rep.
  • Breathe through my nose, not through my mouth so that my throat doesn’t dry up.

Other things I have incorporated for myself:

  • I am trying to not consume too much oily food at iftari– it gives me heartburn, especially since I am eating so late
  • After breaking the fast with a date and/or salt (which is traditional), I have fruits and water first, before having other stuff.
  • I try not to fill up my plate with food. Once I have my first serving, I don’t feel hungry at all.
  • Don’t eat excessively at iftari

I cannot say that I have been super regular with my workouts, but I do physically feel a lot better now that I have been doing them somewhat regularly.

Ramadhan is a month of introspection. We are meant to develop our relationship with God, which requires us to inculcate kindness toward fellow creations, but also toward ourselves. It is one month of the year when we focus on our character weaknesses and improve ourselves, so that we can carry on our good habits through the year. It is a month that is meant to impact all aspects of life – mind, body, and spirit.

I do remember, after last summer I would experience frequent pangs of disappointment from time to time, thinking about how I had failed myself in Ramadhan. And I had, but not in the ways I had thought. I failed to reflect on how my body was part of the spiritual journey. This Ramadhan, I am trying to incorporate exercising and eating better as an integral part of my spiritual experience, part of living life in moderation, something that will hopefully improve the sort of person I am.

I cooked some desi (South Asian) food for our communal breaking of the fast.

Bio: I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Religious Studies program coordinator at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. I am always in the process of getting/remaining physically active. I am also the mother of a 10 and 8 year old. I am concerned about social and political issues that Muslim Americans and other marginalized communities face and believe that our struggles have many commonalities. I am currently working on a book on an introduction to Shia Islam. You can find more about me at