The heart pumps life. It keeps us moving, breathing and feeling. It maintains the body and mind that Allah has entrusted to us, and fuels our muscles so that we may worship Him. It is important to maintain the spiritual heart, but are we making sure our physical heart is healthy?
Although working on the spiritual heart is the most essential, physical health of the heart is equally important – a physically unhealthy heart will stop us from worshiping Allah in best way possible. So, it is important for us to dedicate time towards looking after our hearts and working towards optimal health.
Being strong and healthy is Sunnah
The fit Muslim is a productive Muslim! Exercise can literally help us become the strong Ummah our beloved Prophet Muhammad wanted us to be. A strong and healthy body will allow us to continue performing salah in an upright position well into our older years. The increased stamina and energy levels equip us with the physical resources necessary to wake up for fajr and stand up for tahajjud. Being physically fit will make fasting in Ramadan easy and enjoyable. The companions of the Prophet Muhammad were strong and healthy, and the prophets [alayhum] before them also had good health and fitness. Prophet Muhammad himself was “neither fat, nor thin” [The Sealed Nectar], and he advised,
“There are two blessings which many people lose: (They are) health and free time for doing good.” [Sahih al-Bukhari]
Having the intention to be physically fit for the sake of Allah will make your exercise something to be rewarded for, and it will aid you in increasing your acts of worship. The body is an amanah (trust) from Allah , and good health is a great and often under-appreciated blessing. Making small changes to make our heart healthy will in sha Allah bring us closer to Allah and His Messenger .
Other benefits of exercise are:
- The surge of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine (aka, “happy hormones”) decreases stress and anxiety, and increases joy
- Mental alertness is sharpened
- Feelings of depression are reduced
- Reduces the risk of heart disease and helps manage weight
- Improves muscular and bone strength
- Reduces the risk of certain cancers and diabetes
What can strengthen my physical heart?
The heart is a physical organ in our body and therefore we need to take care of its health. Exercise strengthens our heart and improves our overall well-being. But it is important to choose exercises that you enjoy. If an exercise is fun, you are more likely to stick to it. There are two important things that make your heart healthy – exercise and diet. Let’s discuss these easy activities for a happy heart:
Examples of cardiovascular exercises are jump roping, jogging, brisk walking, stair climbing, biking, and team sports. Any exercise that raises your heart rate will build a strong and healthy heart.
Interval training is simply alternating your level of physical activity, i.e. short bursts of high-intensity exercise with a lightly longer period of active rest. One example is running very quickly for one minute and then walking for 5 minutes, and repeating this pattern a few times. By continuously raising and lowering your heart rate, you improve your heart’s functioning and clear out fat and sugar from your blood. Also, according to a research carried out in the University of Waterloo, people with more varied heart rates are able to reason in a wiser, less biased fashion about societal problems. And such people also show superior performance in the brain’s executive functioning such as implementing goal-oriented behaviors, attentional control, and thinking about different topics simultaneously.
Other examples of interval training include:
a) Alternating 3 minutes of walking at a normal speed with a 1-minute walk at a brisk pace.
b) Speed running (on the spot) for a minute and the jogging on the spot for the 30 seconds and repeating.
c) Running up a flight of stairs and then walking down a flight of stairs.
All-body exercises force your heart to work harder in order to fuel those working muscles and as a result, strengthen the heart itself. They are especially good for those who have injuries and want to miminize the impact on your weight-bearing joints. These sports include swimming, cycling, aqua aerobics and rowing.
Weight and Core Training
Building strong muscles reduces the overall burden on your heart, increases your strength and maximizes your endurance. Free weights are especially effective because they use more muscles and build balance.
Any training that gets you to stretch and bend and pull in that tummy helps to strengthen your core. The core is the very foundation of a strong body and needs to be exercised well. Exercises such as yoga and Pilates, improve flexibility and balance, strengthen core muscles and makes the blood vessels more elastic, thus promoting heart health.
Target Heart Rate
Our heart rate must remain between 50 to 85 percent of the maximum heart rate while engaging in any physical activity. Stop in between exercise to check your pulse, or keep an eye on your equipment if it has the capacity to tell you your heart rate. A heart rate between 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate indicates a moderate-intensity activity and if it is between 70 to 85 percent, you are engaged in a high-intensity activity.
If you can feel your heart pumping harder, but still can talk comfortably, you are engaged in a moderate-intensity activity. If you are too breathless to talk, then SLOW DOWN! If you are able to sing or whistle, then STEP UP THE PACE!
A Heart Healthy Diet
Did you know that approximately 90% of the cases of heart attacks from cardiovascular diseases can be prevented? Lack of exercise and a high-fat diet are two of the major risk factors for atherosclerosis (the development of fatty deposits in the heart vessels), which lead to heart conditions like stroke and heart failure. Here are some food habits you can make to your current diet:
Reduce salt levels
Too much salt in food can raise your blood pressure, increasing the risk of a heart attack and stroke. High blood pressure has no symptoms, but can have a devastating effect on the health of your heart. Reduce salt levels in food by seasoning with other spices like black pepper and fresh herbs. Shop for “low sodium” or “reduced salt” versions of packaged foods, and replace salt snacks with healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.
Limit unhealthy fats
There are two types of fats: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are found in things like butter, ghee, cream, hard cheeses, and cakes and biscuits. These are known to increase levels of bad cholesterol in your blood, which can cause the build up of fatty deposits in your arteries. Instead, choose unsaturated fats such as olive oil or canola oil (which contain monounsaturated fats) and eat more fish, avocados, nuts and seeds (which contain polyunsaturated fats). These types of fats can work to increase the levels of good cholesterol in your blood when they replace saturated fats. But moderation is key. All types of fat are high in calories.
Switch to wholegrain
Switching to wholegrain versions of rice, pasta and bread is a great choice to make for long-lasting healthy living. Making small, consistent changes is the best way to lose and maintain weight, and create healthy habits for you and your family.
Rice, pasta, bread and potatoes are known as starchy foods or carbohydrates, and are a good source of energy and nutrients. White rice, pasta and bread have been processed and refined, and therefore contain a lot more simple sugars and much less fibre than brown or wholegrain food. As a result, they are less filling and it can be easy for us to overeat; a diet full of white carbohydrates can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes and obesity. Wholegrain pasta and rice contain complex sugars and take longer to digest leaving you feeling fuller for longer; the higher amount of fibre in wholegrain also means your gut remains healthy, preventing constipation.
Opt for wholegrain cereals for breakfast and leave fried breakfasts as a treat on the weekends. Switch to brown rice and pasta for lunch and dinner and add vegetables to your dish. Additionally, there is a misconception that potatoes are fattening, but they can be a healthy choice when cooked correctly. Avoid frying potatoes, and mash, boil or roast them instead.
Moderation is key
Islam is the middle path; it discourages us from going to extremes. This can be applied to our diet and exercise too. Start with exercises that you know your body can handle, and allow yourself to indulge in an unhealthy snack now and again – pushing your body can have adverse effects and will end up making you feel depressed and unmotivated.
“O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess.” [Qur’an: Chapter 7, Verse 31]
Small changes are likely to remain long-term, which is better than making big changes which only last a month.
Have the correct intention, make dua that Allah facilitates you on this journey, and makes your heart healthy for His worship!
How will you begin making your heart physically healthy? Share your tips in the comments section below!
This article was written in collaboration with Raeesa Patel.
Raeesa Patel is an editor, writer and a dreamer. Her head is filled with words and her life is filled with two busy little boys and a third on the way!