Exercise and fasting, by Dr. Omar Ahmed

This year not only does the month of Ramadan coincide with the hot days of summer, but it is also during a time when many are starting a new school year.  New schedules need to be adjusted to, new friends to meet, and on top of that getting used to going without food and water while others are enjoying their lunchtime break.   This difficulty is compounded for those who are participating in sports or physical education.  Children and adults need to know how to appropriately take care of their bodies during physical exertion, especially if fasting is limiting the daytime nutrition and fluids they are able to provide themselves.

While exercise is not a reason to break the fast, illness is.  Allah (swt) has given us the permission to not fast if we are sick, in need of medications during the day, or if fasting would make our condition worse.  It is also important that hydration is not forgotten during the evening breaking-of-the-fast meals.  It is easy to get attracted to the delicious feasts that are prepared by family and friends, and forget that we need to replace the essential fluids that our bodies have lost during the day.  This is especially essential when fluids are lost with sweat during warm days and heavy exercise.  Remember the recommendation of the Prophet (pbuh): when eating, the stomach should be filled with 1/3 food, 1/3 water, 1/3 air.  In other words, fluids like water should be given equal priority to foods, and we should not over-eat when we break our fast.

For those active in sports or exercise, it is probably a good idea to let the coach/PE teacher know that you are fasting.  Regular work-outs can still be attended, but at least the coach/PE teacher will understand if the athlete has to slow down to rest and especially if there is a medical emergency.  But exercising and fasting in an intelligent manner can help avoid unnecessary problems.  Some suggestions:

1)      wake up for the pre-dawn meal.  Even if not hungry at this time, it is important to drink water so that the body can be prepared for the long day ahead, especially if a warm day is expected.  Prepare morning meals with complex carbohydrates, which can be broken down more gradually and provide energy throughout the day.  Examples include whole grain breads, oatmeal, high fiber breakfast cereals, potatoes, pasta, lentils, and beans.

2)      Stretch before exercising.  Cramping can occur because of lack of fluids but stretching the muscles prior to exercising may increase the blood flow to the area so the muscles can get the nutrients they need before being used intensely.

3)      Stay cool.  Wear light-colored, light-fitting clothing; seek shade; wear a cap/visor if allowed; use a cool towel to rub again the head and face.

4)      Drink water at night.  Consider drinking a couple of cups of water before you start your main meal at sunset.  This will start replenishing your fluids and help avoid the phenomenon of being too full to drink after eating a big meal.  Remember to eat in moderation.

5)      Know your body.  Be aware of signs that your body is suffering so that you may break your fast if necessary.  While it is normal to feel tired after a long day of fasting, or to develop a “hunger headache,” it is important to be able to differentiate these normal fasting consequences from more serious pending bodily injury.   Certainly a high fever is a sign that the body is not well, and fasting should be broken and fluids consumed to help the body cope.  Symptoms of heat exhaustion include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, weakness, and even fainting.   People exhibiting one or more of these symptoms in the setting of heat exposure should be taken indoors or to a shaded area to cool down, and also be provided fluids.  If unable to take fluids by mouth because of nausea/vomiting, the person should be taken to the emergency department for consideration of IV fluids.

Ramadan is not necessarily the time to stop all our routine activities, just because of the excuse of fasting.  It is a month of spiritual renewal and should remind us to remember Allah (swt) and to be thankful for all the bounties we have received.  If care is taken, students and athletes should be able to continue to perform at a high level, not just despite their fasting but perhaps even at a higher level because of taking better care of ourselves and receiving the blessings of Allah (swt).