Ramadan is the time where the busiest of Muslims become busier. This blessed month brings new commitments to juggle including work, family, fasting night prayers, early suhoor – not to mention trying to catch adequate hours of sleep in between! It can sometimes feel like we are working a second job! No wonder so many Muslims struggle with feelings of tiredness, lethargy, and low-energy while fasting. In a time where so many Muslims aim to increase their worship while optimizing productivity at work and at home, you might be thinking, ‘Why are we talking about health during Ramadan?”
In fact, it is precisely because of the sheer quantity and variety of tasks that need to be done throughout the day, as well as the immense opportunities for blessings and added worship, that we must pay special attention to our health!
We can think about our health as the necessary condition for us to do or accomplish anything in life. How can we set out to perform each of our responsibilities this month with ihsaan and excellence if we are fatigued due to neglecting our health?
As Muslims, we have to shift how we view our health. Our health is not just another responsibility from a long list of stuff we may or may not get around to working on in our busy lives. Your health is an investment that gives back more than you put in. When you invest time into your health, fitness and food choices, your body, mind, and soul will be capable of fully maximizing your potential in Ramadan!
In this article, we will share 3 steps to ensure peak performance during the month of Ramadan. Health is not the goal, but a necessary means to spiritual and worldly success!
Preliminary Step 0: Identify your personal health challenges you will be facing this Ramadan
The goal in prioritizing health and fitness in Ramadan is to ensure high energy to complete our worship with ihsaan and excellence while maintaining high performance at work and at home. However, we all have different challenges that we bring with us into Ramadan, from individual medical histories, our current fitness level, our family situation, available hours in the day, work circumstances, and more.
Many Muslims approach Ramadan with medical diagnoses such as diabetes. Others face personal time constraints and challenges, such as long work hours or highly-involved family responsibilities. Instead of viewing these challenges as barriers to health in Ramadan, it is important to use these parameters to formulate a realistic plan of action to work towards your healthiest, highest-energy Ramadan.
A busy mom or working professional who realistically will not make time for a 30-minute workout in Ramadan can shift their goals based on this challenge to focus on increasing their daily movement for ongoing high energy. A person who knows they need to lose weight to feel their best can make a plan on how to serve themselves at tempting iftar buffets and maintain proper portion control. A patient with diabetes can begin discussing low-carb iftar choices with their family and begin dialoguing with their doctor as to how to adjust their medication if they are healthy enough to fast.
Identifying your unique challenges in the following domains will help you approach Ramadan and make health goals with clarity:
- Work obligations & time constraints
- Family responsibilities
- Your family’s approach to meals in Ramadan that may affect you
- Your current fitness level
- Your medical history
The difference between a Muslim who reads countless health blogs in Ramadan but doesn’t implement anything, versus a Muslim who takes small but effective actions to ensure a healthy, high energy fast is being aware of your personal challenges and making a personally catered plan for your Ramadan health and fitness based on your lifestyle needs.
Once you have identified your unique challenges this Ramadan, you are prepared to begin thinking about the steps you can take to reach your full potential this Ramadan!
The secret to being productive in Ramadan is to reduce pain and discomfort experienced in Ramadan due to health imbalances. When you think about what holds you back from reaching your full potential while fasting, it’s due to some sort of pain or discomfort. Perhaps you cannot focus in prayer due to hunger pains. Or perhaps your productivity at work suffers because of headaches and thirst.
The discomfort or pain we experience in Ramadan that hinders our productivity is due to your body’s inappropriate output, input, recharge, or any combination of these three:
Step 1: Optimise your output
Overcome laziness with NEAT movement
Many Muslims complain of tiredness, low energy, crankiness, irritability and lack of motivation in Ramadan. A major factor contributing to these unproductive states is a sudden decrease in movement. It seems counterintuitive, but the more you move while fasting, the more energized you will feel from a physiological perspective, as endorphins and feel-good hormones are released into your body. While many Muslims try to move as little as possible in Ramadan, your secret competitive advantage is if you recognize that movement will help skyrocket your productivity and ability to devote your energy to worship in this blessed month!
Do not fall into the misconception of assuming fitness only happens in the gym or is for young people who “want to look good”. Fitness is your level of daily movement that protects you against the negative health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. Fitness is the quick walking breaks you take at work to prevent stiff and sore muscles. Fitness is taking stairs instead of the elevator, and parking at the back of the masjid parking lot so you can squeeze in extra steps before Taraweh. Fitness is using your now-unoccupied food-free lunch break in Ramadan to take a speedwalk in your parking lot at work.
These types of movement are called NEAT – Non-exercise activity thermogenesis, which refers to calories expended by your body in daily activities. The higher your daily NEAT movement, the higher your metabolism, the stronger your energy, and the greater your concentration will be in worship throughout the day. While most Muslims reduce their NEAT movement in Ramadan, to be as effective as possible in your work, home and worship, look for opportunities for increasing movement throughout the day!
To get started improving your NEAT movement:
- Using a step tracker or free phone app, track your steps for 1 full day before Ramadan. Use this as a baseline to determine your current level of NEAT movement
- Aim to get as close as possible to 10,000 steps a day before Ramadan begins so your body can acclimatize to your new level of movement in a non-fasted state
- Commit to maintaining this new level of movement while fasting in Ramadan!
Increasing your NEAT movement in Ramadan is how you can avoid the sloth and laziness that plagues so many Muslims in this blessed month.
Step 2: Optimise your input
Keep hunger pangs at bay with fueling foods
Many Muslims agree that healthy eating is important in Ramadan, but struggle resisting heavy cultural foods, sugary desserts, and large portion sizes. When it comes to your food choices in Ramadan, the key principle is balance. You can absolutely enjoy all your favorite traditional foods and even the occasional dessert, but don’t forget that suhoor and iftar are opportunities to refuel your body in preparation for the long fast ahead and to replenish the energy needs for your body. Essentially, the quality of your work output and workship potential during the night and next fasting day largely depends upon the energy obtained from your food choices at suhoor and iftar!
First, consider the quality of food you are using as input for your body. Diversity amongst the food groups (protein, carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits, dairy, healthy fats) is an easy way to ensure balance in your meals. Many Muslims gravitate towards filling their plates only with simple carbohydrates and protein. However, the more food groups you can add to your meals, such as vegetables, legumes, beans and whole grains, the more your food will do for your energy and feelings of hunger! Try to include 3-4 food groups at every suhoor and iftar meal.
At suhoor, foods high in fiber and protein keep you feeling full longer throughout your fasting day.
- Fiber-rich foods: Whole grains, oatmeal, lentils, leafy green vegetables, nuts, fruits (apples, berries, etc.)
- Protein-rich foods: Eggs, fish, chicken, beans, yogurt, cottage cheese, quinoa, oatmeal, lentils
In addition to prioritizing foods high in fiber and protein, at iftar, hydrating foods also help fill you up and force portion-control:
- Hydrating foods: Soups, fruits (eg. melons), vegetables
The key to eating healthy in Ramadan is realizing that foods of ALL cultures can be healthy if you select raw ingredients from diverse food groups, and avoid overloading these beautiful natural foods with excessive amounts of fats such as oils and added sugars. Balance is key!
Prevent headaches with adequate hydration during non-fasted hours
Although many Muslims spend a lot of time thinking about their food choices, your hydration is actually one of the most important factors to consider for your overall performance and energy! Dehydration can cause headaches, irritability, as well as reduced focus and clarity. Hydrate aggressively during suhoor, iftar, and keep a water bottle with your during Taraweh and night prayers. Remember, your hydration is just as important as your food input!
Step 3: Recharge
Avoid fatigue with adequate sleep and regular repaying of sleep debts
In Ramadan, the nights are short. Many Muslims argue that getting enough sleep is difficult due to night prayers and worship opportunities. However, a study on Muslim behaviors during Ramadan found that 60% of fasting individuals who stayed awake after 11:00 pm attributed their wakefulness to socializing with families and friends and watching TV! (1)
As the nights of Ramadan are such a precious opportunity for worship and blessings, as well as an essential time for our body to rest, repair and recharge, it is important to prioritize your worship and then your sleep and cut down distractions during the night. Avoid loitering around the masjid socializing after Taraweh as these moments need to be utilized properly, either for worship, or rest.
The Prophet ﷺ emphasized the importance of not neglecting your body’s needs:
It was narrated from Anas that there was a group of the Companions of the Prophet, one of whom said: “I will not marry women.” Another said: “I will not eat meat.” Another said: “I will not sleep on a bed.” Another said: “I will fast and not break my fast.” News of that reached the Messenger of Allah and he praised Allah then said: “What is the matter with people who say such and such? I pray and I sleep, I fast and I break my fast, and I marry women. Whoever turns away from my Sunnah is not of me.” (Sunan an-Nasa’i 3217)
Maximise your sleep around your worship, and fill in gaps in your sleep using short, daytime naps. Research has shown that if you accumulate a short-term “sleep-debt” due to missed hours, you can “repay” the sleep debt, for example, using weekends or naps (2). The negative health effects of sleep deprivation may be reversed if sleep-debts are repaid quickly and in short doses, for example, an hour of extra sleep on weekends or using 20-minute power naps.
Although the fasting days during Ramadan may feel long, we all know that the nights of Ramadan seem to slip by so quickly. This is a short opportunity to get serious about our performance and health, just as an athlete prepares for peak performance during their prime sports season.
Aligning your output, input and recharging behavior patterns during Ramadan is well worth the effort for to align with your desire for maximum performance in work and worship in this blessed month.
(1) BaHammam, A. (2003). Sleep pattern, daytime sleepiness, and eating habits during the month of Ramadan. Sleep and Hypnosis, 5, 165-174.
(2) Broussard, J. L., Wroblewski, K., Kilkus, J. M., & Tasali, E. (2016). Two nights of recovery sleep reverses the effects of short-term sleep restriction on diabetes risk. Diabetes Care, 39(3), e40-e41