Update 2/27/20. As a personal trainer, you will be working with many different types of people. They will not only have different personalities but religions customs too. While religion does not need to be considered when training clients, I know some fitness trainers struggle with dietary guidelines during training sessions for those who fast during certain times of the year. One such group is Muslims during Ramadan. Can you exercise during Ramadan? Let's now discuss various topics that you might run into if your train Muslims during Ramadan.
What Is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the time of year in which Muslims refrain from eating and drinking. Ramadan lasts for about a month and during this time, people are not supposed to eat or drink anything from sun up till sundown. This generally includes no drinking water either. People can eat/drink when the sun sets though. The evening meal is called Iftar.
It's important to note that it's not only Muslims who fast. People of other religions including Christianity and Judaism may also periodically fast.
Is Exercise Safe During Ramadan?
For healthy people, yes. There is no evidence people should not exercise during Ramadan fasting. While we should always consider a person's health and the intensity of exercise, for the person with no medical issues, I see no problems with working out during Ramadan.
Personal Training During Ramadan
Exercise during Ramadan fast sometimes confuses personal trainers because of a common belief that to make gains in the gym, its often recommend that people eat immediately after working out. This is called nutrient timing. This is something that isn't possible during Ramadan if exercise occurs during the day.
Whether you believe in nutrient timing or not, the evidence is emerging that it is not necessary to eat immediately after exercise or within 60 minutes after exercise. Eating several hours after exercise appears to work just as well. This is good news for those who fast during the day or who follow intermittent fasting diet programs.
For the person concerned with the anabolic effects of eating after exercise, try to adjust workouts so that the exercise session is closer to the evening. That way, when the person is finished working out, it will be close to the time of the evening meal. Because some gyms like Planet Fitness are open 24 hours, exercise after the evening meal might work too.
Even if the person is working out towards the evening, reducing exercise intensity is recommended because people will be in a fasted state by the time the workout begins. To determine the intensity of exercise I recommend the RPE scale rather than target heart rate .
Because fasting all day will significantly reduce muscle glycogen (carb) reserves, it's likely the person will feel fatigued due to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This is probably going to reduce their ability to exercise. This reduction in glycogen may also lead to some weight loss. Most of the weight though will be water and not fat.
Because of reduced muscle glycogen, the intensity of exercise may need to be reduced. This is true for both cardio and strength training. In addition, the personal trainer will probably also have to:
- Give longer rest periods between sets
- Do fewer sets per exercise
- Do fewer exercises per body part
- Reduce the volume of exercise (weight x reps x sets = volume)
Exercise Ramadan And Weight Loss
Because fewer calories are consumed during Ramadan, some might think this is an ideal time to start a diet to lose weight. If you encounter this person, remind them that real weight loss -the kind that lasts long term -isn't just something that happens over the course of a few weeks. In other words, fasting during Ramadan and then going back to old ways of eating afterward, is unlikely to cause any real, long term benefits. Also, remind them of the quick weight loss they might see during Ramadan is due to water loss (from glycogen loss ) and not fat loss.
That said, if they use the time during Ramadan, to change the way they eat, then this can be a jumping-off point to long term success. I know nutrition is something that not all personal trainers are well versed in so If the trainer is not able to do this, then referring the client to a registered dietitian is in order. You can find dietitians in your area by going to the EatRight.org website.
Also, remind the personal training client that overeating -when eating is allowed – will likely nullify any effects fasting might have. Educate the client that when Ramadan starts, they might notice some fast weight loss. It's not uncommon to notice several pounds lost in the first week. This is true for anyone who reduces calorie intake.
Most of this weight is water, which is released as the person starts using glycogen (stored carbohydrates) for energy. This quick loss of weight during low calorie (and low carb) diets is the reason people lose weight fast on.
See this review of low carb diets for more information on this.
Remind the person also that exercise is not the main factor that causes weight loss. Rather, resting metabolism is. I cover this in more detail in this review so see it for more insights.
Ramadan And Weight Loss Supplements
Its possible trainers might encounter Muslims who take weight loss supplements during Ramadan to not only curb appetite but also to ramp up any weight loss that might occur during this time. I don’t think this is the right direction to go. Supplements that I feel would be inappropriate – and possibly dangerous include:
- Supplements might contain stimulants
- Supplements that contain diuretics
- Supplements that contain “fat burners”
- Supplements containing herbs
These supplements have the potential to cause elevated heart rate and blood pressure as well as causing electrolyte imbalances which can further cause heart problems. Some supplements might also interfere with medications the person is taking.
When one considers Muslims are taking in fewer calories during Ramadan, to begin with, anything which might make them eat less makes no sense, especially if they are also working out. Remember, calories are what give the muscles energy. Limiting calories during this time will also hinder exercise performance.
I covered the weight loss supplements with the most evidence previously so see that for more insights. That said, even those I would not recommend during Ramadan.
As for herbs, amino acid supplements, and testosterone boosters, I see every little evidence for most products. I've been investigating supplements since the 1990s. My advice is to save money on , most muscle building supplements.
Building Muscle During Ramadan
While I would not rule out people can get stronger during Ramadan, I have not seen any research on how much gains people can make during this time. If the client is a beginner, then I'm sure they will get stronger but this is mostly because of changes in the central nervous system. Basically, the nerves will send signals to the muscles to help them perform the exercise better. This better “talking” between the muscles and the nervous system will be the main reason beginners will get stronger. This can last up to 8-12 weeks.
For the person who has been working out for a long time and wants to get stronger or bigger during Ramadan, I think this all depends on how well they eat during the times they are permitted to eat during. Basically, they will have to choose their foods very well, paying very close attention to the macronutrients – proteins, fats and carbs -they eat.
While a multivitamin can't hurt, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) likely won't play any role in muscle growth. That's because extra vitamins and minerals have not been shown to make people bigger, stronger or faster. Still, taking a multivitamin can't hurt and might help offset anything they missed in their diet when they are allowed to eat.
Ramadan And Meal Frequency
Nutrient timing is the name given to eating at certain times of the day to maximize muscle growth and exercise performance. It's likely your clients have heard of this and may have even read books about nutrient timing as well.
As mentioned above, the evidence for nutrient timing is not as strong as some might think. Not all studies show it works. While I do feel timing meals may have some benefits for older adults and “athletes,” I don’t think most people have to worry about this. I point you to this review article for those who want to know more.
Ramadan And Diabetes
Remember that exercise has blood sugar lowering effect. So, what if you are dealing with a Muslim client during Ramadan who is also is a diabetic? Intense exercise plus the lack of calories/carbs can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). This might lead to the person passing out. For the diabetic (type I or type II diabetes), this risk can be greater.
Signs of hypoglycemia can include the following:
- Abnormal behavior
- Inability to complete routine tasks (like poor coordination during exercise)
- Blurred vision or double vision
- Sweating —even if not doing a lot of activity
- Being anxious
- Muscle weakness
- Becoming nauseous
- Becoming unconscious
While the unusual treatment for hypoglycemia is to give the person carbs, during Ramadan this might be perceived as a violation of the person's faith.
Obviously, -from a health perspective – it would be best in this situation to give carbs and call an ambulance if needed, but I think the scenario of the diabetic Muslim passing out during Ramadan is best avoided by keeping the exercise intensity at a light to moderate pace. Also, the trainer needs to make the individual aware of hypoglycemia and encourage only appropriate exercise. In this case, client education can be a powerful tool you have to prevent this from occurring.
That said, for clients with type II diabetes, Ramadan might be a teachable moment where fitness trainers can talk to the client about how weight loss and exercise can help improve – maybe even reverse – their diabetes. I refer you to these posts I've written for more insights:
Muslim Personal Trainers
While I don’t think Ramadan should be an issue for Muslim personal trainers doing one-on-one training with clients, for the trainer who is teaching multiple group fitness classes during the day, the reduced calorie intake might impact the ability to exercise along with the class. For the trainer dealing with this issue, I think it’s a good idea to pace yourself during fitness classes or even try to find subs to teach classes during times when you feel your energy level might be lowest. If necessary, speak to the owner/fitness trainer of the club you work out too.
Have you worked with clients during Ramadan? Are you a Muslim personal trainer? Share your thoughts and insights so others can benefit from your experiences.