Shaping up for Ramandan: Holy month doesn’t preclude fitness goals

Jessicca Angelov works out during a Ramadan fitness class at Go M.A.D. Fitness in Toledo.

Shairene Alo is one of the regulars in a circuit class at Go M.A.D. Fitness in Toledo on Mondays and Fridays. She works out year-round at the gym.

One month of the year, though, she tends to take a step back from her fitness routine.

“Last Ramadan,” she said, “I didn’t work out at all.”

It’s not necessarily unusual for those who observe Ramadan, a month of intense prayer and sunup-to-sundown fasting on the Islamic calendar. Fasting is a spiritual practice that carries some practical implications for the fitness-minded, as Cheryl Coppa, a health and fitness coach at Go M.A.D. Fitness, learned through some of her clients last year.

With a temporary inability to fuel themselves like they otherwise would before and after a workout, she said, some would drop off for the entirety of Ramadan. Others would drop off altogether, she said, having fallen out of step with an established fitness routine.

“We wouldn’t want that to happen,” she said.

So at the suggestion of one of those clients, Ms. Coppa, who is Catholic, is this year leading a first-time fitness class that takes into account the unique circumstances of those observing Ramadan. It’s female-only, a nod to the cultural preference of some of the participants, and it’s the only class of its kind in the area.

The idea is maintenance, Ms. Coppa said: She isn’t looking for the women to advance fitness goals, so much as she is looking to help them hold onto what they’ve already achieved.

“I’m trying to build muscle, so I didn’t want it to be gone by the end of the month,” said Jessicca Angelov, who, like many of the women in the class, works out in a sports hijab.

Ms. Alo also signed up.

“Cheryl found a way for us to not lose what gains we’ve made,” she said.

Fourteen women signed up for the class, some of whom, including Ms. Angelov and Ms. Alo, had already worked out with Ms. Coppa. The class meets for at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursdays for an hour that sounds a lot like any other group fitness class, with energetic music and plentiful words of encouragement, if perhaps a noticeable lack of reminders to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Ms. Coppa fasts on the days she leads the class, too, in part as a way to keep the intensity level in check. She generally keeps the focus on balance and flexibility. Her lineup of lunges and leg lifts and the like could make for a pretty intense workout if a participant were to up the weight of the dumbbells she incorporates into many of them, she said, but that really isn’t the goal.

As she reminds the women repeatedly during the class, it’s all right to swap a 10-pound weight for a 5-pound weight or for no weight at all. And some do.

After a long day with no meals to refuel, their form isn’t always military. But they keep moving.

“Movement is key,” Ms. Coppa said. “As long as the body is moving.”

Under normal circumstances, Liz Satterthwaite, a registered dietitian with ProMedica, said a person should look to eat two to four hours before a workout and again afterward. “But when we’re fasting and we’re exercising,” she continued, “then our body will start to tap into the stores that we already have of carbohydrates … and possibly our fat stores, depending on the person.”

While she wouldn’t recommend intense exercise while fasting – say, training for a marathon or powerlifting – regimens that are easier on the body are generally sustainable, so long as an individual refuels and rehydrates conscientiously when they’re able.

For the women in this fitness class, that’s at morning suhur and evening iftar, which, conveniently, falls shortly after the evening class ends on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That means it isn’t long after a class before the women can hydrate with a refreshing sip of water.

Ms. Coppa said there was some debate over the ideal time for the class, with some advocating a late night class, when the women would be able to keep their water bottles nearby. Some found that inconvenient, while others find the current time inconvenient, especially if they’re responsible for preparing a meal to break the fast with their family.

In Ms. Coppa’s limited experience with the daylong fasts, she’s found the last hours are the hardest, so she said that’s an additional benefit of a fitness class just before iftar.

“This last hour, your mind is not thinking about how thirsty or how hungry you are,” she said. “You’re listening to the music, you’re with your friends and you’re working out.”

Health and fitness are certainly on the minds of the women during their hour in the studio, with some saying they hoped to utilize the fast to lose some weight; others said they see the fitness class as a way to counteract the overeating that’s pretty easy to fall into during Ramadan.

But there’s also a spiritual element, they said. They spoke of a broader understanding of the month and the heightened spiritual consciousness that comes with the sunup-to-sundown fasts.

“Islamically, we’re supposed to take care of our bodies,” said Yolanda Melendez, who joined the class alongside Ms. Alo. “So this kind of ties in. We’re supposed to make sure that we’re healthy and fit and that we don’t overindulge.”

“I think a lot of people incorporate exercise into the routine of Ramadan, if they haven’t been doing it,” Angela Olivares said. “It’s all about a month of trying to renew our character, to rebuild ourselves and try to develop good habits. Exercise is one of those good habits.”

Ms. Alo agrees. But she’s happy to save the high-intensity stuff for June.