This time of year is about reflection, self-control and being more mindful of those who are less fortunate. So you might be forgiven for assuming that exercise routines can slip for the duration – after all, when the tank is empty after 15 hours or so of no food or water, it must be counterproductive to engage in strenuous physical exercise, right?
Wrong, says Dr Nasrullah Jakhrani, a GP at Aster Clinic in Bur Dubai. "Most people are of the opinion that exercise during Ramadan is not advisable. However, moderate physical activity during Ramadan is a healthy practice – it helps keep control over excess body weight that could be gained during the holy month," he says.
"High-intensity workouts that strain the body are definitely not advised; however, activities like brisk walking, cycling etc, are to be continued. The best time to exercise is before suhoor or after taraweeh prayers."
'Fasting is not an excuse to avoid exercise'
A study by UAE GuavaPass based on last year’s holy month highlights how attitudes towards exercise shift during Ramadan. The fitness company reported a 68 per cent increase in yoga bookings, a 23 per cent rise in bookings for stretching classes, and a 10 per cent increase for toning work-outs – suggesting many members would prefer lower-intensity exercise. Meanwhile, the more intense weight-training sessions saw a 43 per cent decrease, while the average number of workouts booked per person was 3.5 per week.
Dubai-based personal trainer Ali Ayman won't be accepting excuses from anyone this Ramadan. "Fasting is not an excuse to avoid exercise," he says. "If you can't exercise for even 30 minutes before iftar, do it two hours after iftar and before suhoor. You might feel lethargic during the first few days, which is a natural reaction for the body, but with repetition, exercise becomes easier and it will increase your vitality during the day."
He says that exercise “returns metabolism to its normal speed, revitalises the body, burns excess calories and builds muscle”. But he also counsels those who are fasting to keep things realistic. “One of the biggest mistakes people make in Ramadan is setting unrealistic goals that are hard to realise in a single month,” he says. “This leads only to becoming frustrated and giving up. Therefore, I recommend that you set smart and realistic goals – like losing or gaining one kilogram per week. You can do this with the help of nutrition experts and trainers to put you on the right track.”
The right time to workout?
As with diet, there's no one-approach-fits-all formula to combining fasting and exercise, so it's important that we listen to our own bodies and find a way that works best for us personally. This is backed by Nelita Villezon, head trainer at Orangetheory Fitness in Dubai, who says that "fitness is very individualistic, and what you decide to do during Ramadan should be based on how you feel. As Ramadan is not only a time of reflection, but also a very sociable time when family and friends tend to stay up late until suhoor, many prefer to exercise in the midnight-to-3am window."
She concedes that there’s no such thing as a perfect time to work out. “It’s all about knowing what works best for you,” she says. “Don’t overexert yourself, especially if you choose to work out before iftar, and know when to stop. It could be advisable to do something light right before iftar, more cardio-centric, and then more intense after breaking your fast. A 30-minute work-out before and after iftar is a good way to ensure you stock up on your food and water intake – just remember to wait an hour or two after breaking your fast and to eat in moderation. It’s easy to overindulge, but discipline remains key when it comes to fitness.”
Andres Oppenheim, general manager at Switzerland's Nescens Clinique De Genolier, says the worst time to hit the gym for anyone fasting is during the afternoon, because you won't be able to re-energise. He also advises easing in to new routines. "In the initial days of Ramadan," he says, "it is recommended to keep your workouts to half an hour in length. Then, as the month progresses, you can work your way up to exercising for a full hour".
Adjusting your body
Meanwhile, Dina ElShurafa, founder of Dubai’s Reform Athletica fitness studio, suggests that our bodies are more resilient and stronger than we assume, even after prolonged periods with lack of sustenance.
“The first few days of Ramadan are always the hardest, as our bodies adjust to the new routine. With this in mind, it is advisable to avoid any exercise for the first few days until our bodies are accustomed and adjusted to the idea of fasting. Once the body has adjusted, devising a lighter exercise plan is a good first step to maintaining a fitness regime.”
She recommends taking a light walk before iftar and exercising within individual limits, but like others have pointed out, more intense activities should be carried out once our bodies have been refuelled and energy levels topped up. "Try to do two workouts per week pre-iftar," she suggests, "that include walking, yoga or Pilates.
“Make sure your iftar meal is healthy and light. Avoid sugary, fried and high-fat foods, which are heavy and will leave you feeling sluggish and unable to reach peak performance. Ideally, for optimal training your meal should consist of soup, salad, protein and complex carbohydrate.”
If all this advice seems like lecturing, don't despair. Because even if the thought of beasting it in the gym after a day of fasting is enough to bring you out in a rash, Villezon offers us a kindly reminder that "a little something is better than nothing".