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How to exercise and stay healthy while fasting this Ramadan

Fasting during Ramadan can be physically challenging, especially if you like to be physically active. Here's how you can maintain your health and fitness goals this month.

Ramadan, the month-long fast for Muslims, begins this week

While the rich foods served at iftar — the feast to break the fast during Ramadan — can fill you up, they can also leave you feeling lethargic after a few hours, says nutrition expert Arooj Hayat. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

Ramadan, the month-long fast for Muslims, begins this week and one Vancouver nutrition expert has some tips to help you maintain your health and fitness goals during the fast.

During the month of Ramadan, adherents avoid water and food from dawn to sunset. Those with medical conditions or women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating are exempt from fasting.

Nutrition expert Arooj Hayat, who will be fasting throughout Ramadan herself, says the annual fast is an important pillar of Islam.

"It's more than [just] fasting," Hayat explained.

"It's families coming together, building a spiritual connection with God, attending nightly prayers at the masjid, getting reconnected with your community, all of that."

Those celebrations can also mean rich feasts — called iftar — to break the fast.

Hayat said while traditional iftar foods like roasted meats, curries, buttery rice, fried snacks, and sweet desserts can fill you up, they can leave you lethargic for the latter part of the day.

"Things that do work really well are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and slow-digesting proteins [like] yogurt, lean chicken and fish," she said.

Oatmeal is a healthy choice for Ramadan, says nutrition expert Arooj Hayat. (CBC Food) (Photo credit: Jackson Roy)

And another go-to choice, especially for her pre-dawn meal or suhoor?

Oatmeal with nuts, seeds, and fruit.

"It's something we're used to at breakfast time and it's also great at Ramadan," she said. "[And] oats used to be a favourite of the Prophet Mohammed."

Staying fit

As for staying fit, Hayat says professional athletes are a source of inspiration.

She notes U.S. Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad fasted throughout her intense training sessions and so did many Muslim soccer players during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Hometown hero and then Vancouver Grizzly Shareef Abdur-Rahim made headlines in the 90s for adhering to the Ramadan fast during the basketball season.

Shareef Abdur-Rahim drives the lane while defended by Dallas Mavericks forward Gary Trent at Reunion Arena in Dallas, Texas January 25, 2001. (Reuters)

"It's amazing what the human body is capable of doing during the fast," Hayat said. "The vast majority ... might not be able to do it at that level, so people try to do different things."

The biggest challenge, she says, is staying hydrated.

While some people try and exercise after their pre-dawn meal, Hayat says it's better to exercise an hour or so before the sunset meal so that you can drink water afterwards.

"Staying with low amounts of cardio is better," she said. "Put an emphasis on strength training, pilates, yoga, things like that that you can do when you are maintaining your muscle mass."

Listen to Ayoor Hayat's interview on The Early Edition: