Working out during Ramadan: Which exercise is best?

Here are some tips on how to stay safe and get the most out of exercising during the holy month

A low-key workout or light jog 90 minutes before sunset means you can reap the benefits of exercising on an empty stomach and replenish yourself with water soon after. AFP
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Maintaining a normal exercise routine during Ramadan isn't easy, especially because of interrupted sleeping patterns and lowered liquid intake.

However, finding the time to work out during the holy month will not only help keep you healthy, but also keep your energy levels up, your mind clear and your metabolism stable.

“The 30-day period of fasting can be challenging, and it can be tempting to abandon fitness and health goals,” says Aadil Baksh, a personal trainer at Ultimate Performance Dubai.

“Going long hours without food or water can put a large amount of stress on your body, but with some careful planning and smart training advice, you can still lose weight or build muscle during Ramadan safely and effectively.”

Here are some key things to keep in mind.

Which kind of workout is best?

“When working out during Ramadan, the secret is to stimulate, not annihilate. It’s important to take a more measured approach to your training while fasting,” says Baksh.

As someone who observes the fast himself, Ahmed ElSayed, a personal trainer at Fitness First, says he focuses on three basic aspects in each workout – strength training, cardio and flexibility. “The reason I prioritise muscular strength is because a loss of muscle mass will slow down metabolism. The goal should be to avoid both, losing muscle and a drop in your metabolic rate,” he says.

“When it comes to cardio, I recommend a light-intensity session, limited to 30 minutes of slow, steady distance, every other day. Remember, you will be dehydrated, so your body will use your fat storage as a source of energy, especially if you do cardio before iftar. However, the fact that you’re depleted means your blood pressure might drop at the onset or even after, so don’t skip warm-up and cool-down routines,” says ElSayed.

“Similarly, when you start your resistance training, choose exercises that target the upper body before the lower body to avoid any drop in your blood pressure during or after. The last fitness aspect to focus on is flexibility to avoid any mobility-related issues you might face, especially when you exercise normally again after Ramadan and the Eid break.”

The best time to work out

Given the mid-day sun and no liquids from sunrise to sunset, you will compromise your health by pushing yourself too much. It is not recommended to do intense cardio workouts and heavy weight-training exercises while fasting. You should also cut your routine down to two cardio sessions a week throughout the holy month.

Baksh recommends exercising in the early morning; however, if that doesn't work, he suggests after iftar.

“Training early in the morning is best during Ramadan after your first meal of the day,” he says. “If this doesn’t work with your schedule, then hit the gym after your first main meal after iftar, so your body is well fuelled and has the right nutrients for optimal recovery.”

Dr Mona Mobarak, a clinical nutritionist, adds that exercising in a fasted state is no easy task, but it is important to find the best time to ensure a routine is safe and sustainable.

“I would suggest doing strength training routines pre-iftar, but if you prefer to exercise after iftar, try to keep your meal light and save your biggest meal for after your session so you don't feel uncomfortable when training,” she says.

Mobarak also suggests cutting down the time of usual workouts by 15 minutes to limit stress on the body. So, if you usually work out for 60 minutes, limit yourself to 45 minutes instead.

“Don’t feel you have to spend hours in the gym for an effective workout session,” Baksh adds. “You can get a lot done in 45 minutes if you train hard and with intensity. If your long-term goal is building muscle, an option during Ramadan could be to lower the load and add more sets to maintain muscle mass.”

ElSayed suggests routines based on the time of day when working out during Ramadan:

90 minutes before sunset

A light workout during the cooler part of the day means you can soon replenish yourself with water, and reap the benefits of exercising on an empty stomach. However, any workout done at this time should be low-key with more resistance training, low repetitions and weights, and plenty of stretching. This is also a good time for a short brisk walk or light jog.

After your evening meal

While cardio can be difficult on a full stomach, an hour after iftar is a good time for weight training. On the days you plan to exercise after your meal, add in a little extra food to fuel your body, and ensure you drink plenty of water to rehydrate.

Between 11pm and 2am

For night owls, the best time to work out may be between 11pm and 2am, after your food has had time to settle and your body has fully rehydrated. If you have managed to get some rest in the afternoon, exercising at this time can be favourable, as it is cooler than the daytime, and will still leave you with a few hours of sleep before you wake up to start the day.

Between 3am and 4am

For early risers, the best time to work out may be before your morning suhoor. This way, you will have energy from the previous night's meal, yet be on an empty stomach. You can hydrate while you exercise and once you are done, eat again to refuel. This method will also get you energised for the day ahead.