Eating right and exercising after Ramadan

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Studies have shown that it takes approximately 21 days of repeated behavior to form a habit. They also say it takes 21 days to break a habit, but I think many of us can testify that it doesn’t take that long to get used to not doing something that’s good for you.

For 30 days each year, Muslims around the world fast from dusk to dawn during the month of Ramadan. This period of abstaining from food, drink and sex has many benefits: spiritual purification, learning to subdue one’s carnal desires, identifying with the poor and needy who cannot have what they want when they want it, committing an act of pure selflessness, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad [saw], and most importantly, growing closer to Allah [swt].

Some Muslims also use Ramadan as a convenient time to lose weight, break unhealthy eating habits, or start a workout routine. And then there are Muslims whose pre-established workout schedule is thrown off by Ramadan, or who develop unhealthy habits due to the relatively small window of the day in which eating and drinking is allowed.

So what happens when Ramadan is over? How easy is it to fall back into overeating? How hard is it to start going back to the gym if you’d taken a break during Ramadan?

Recreational bodybuilder Ahmed Arifi, a Muslim who lives in Toronto and runs the MuslimBodybuilding.com website and online forum, has some tips on how to establish (or re-establish) a normal, healthy diet and exercise routine when the rules of Ramadan no longer guide your schedule:

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UMMAH SPORTS: Ramadan ended a little more than a week ago. What advice do you have for someone who hadn’t been going to the gym during Ramadan, or maybe they went to the gym less often, but now they want to re-start their workout routine? Should they dive right back in, doing what they were doing before, or take it slow?

AHMED ARIFI: Whether a person trained slightly in Ramadan or not at all, you should take small steps getting back into training for the first week. Make yourself comfortable training again. I trained once to twice a week during Ramadan; [since then] I am not going crazy but trying to make myself go every day or every other day, slowly building up to my old routine.

US: A lot of Muslims ate less during Ramadan than they normally would, and probably lost some weight. Now they can eat whenever they want, but many of them don’t want to put that weight back on. What would you say to them?

AA: Ramadan should have brought weight loss for everyone because of the window of time we have to eat fast … it’s dramatic. The only way someone wouldn’t have (lost weight) or even GAINED weight is if they stuffed themselves for iftar.

Ramadan is a month for Allah [swt], but a lot of people stress with the idea of Ramadan helping them lose weight. It’s not meant for that. If you were eating poorly before Ramadan, I guarantee you, the moment you get back into those old habits you will regain it all and maybe more.

It’s simple, really. At your current body weight and with your level of activity, are you putting in calories in excess or at maintenance? If they are in excess, it will be stored as fat — especially without any training or exercise.

US: Are there diet and exercise habits that may help someone make it through Ramadan that could carry over to improve their health after Ramadan?

AA: If you were unhealthy before Ramadan and somehow changed your eating habits during Ramadan, simply carry that over. The year is 12 months. What people don’t understand is that training and nutrition is year-round. It’s not a one-month thing. I sometimes falter and regress — I’m only human — but overall I strive all year long, training five times a week, every week, and all year long with Ramadan being the one month I step back.

My general advice is this: If you want to improve your health, eat healthier. If you want to lean out and build up strength and muscle, start training regularly and start eating better. The longer you persist and harder you keep at it, inshAllah, the better the results will be. It’s really a lifestyle change, not a temporary endeavor.

Ramadan is meant to instill in us good new habits by training us spiritually. Ramadan is a time to make iman gains; you can worry about muscle gains and fat loss for the rest of the year. It all comes down to developing and maintaining good habits all year long.

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